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Teen-Age Inventor Back on Book Shelves

July 4, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ I’m back, Tom Swift said bookishly.

The ageless teen hero, who survived a lifetime’s worth of harrowing adventures while inventing everything from the motorcycle to the fax machine, has reappeared in a new series of books aimed at young readers.

Following on the reincarnated heels of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, those other venerable icons of teen-age literature, the new Tom Swift is dreaming up space-age gizmos and having to protect them from contemporary villains: cunning clones and criminal cyborgs.

Lest anyone think that the young adult literature market has been vaporized by television, it’s ″not so, not so at all,″ says Anne Greenberg, executive editor of Archway Paperbacks, the Simon & Schuster subsidiary that is publishing the books for readers 9 to 14.

″There are some phenomenally successful books being published for these readers. It’s a large market and a growing one for some time now,″ she said.

As with many a sequel, this one is a Son of. The new Tom Swift is the son of the original Tom who was the central figure in 38 novels that sold 14 million copies. The first appeared in 1910, the last 31 years later.

In each of those tales, Tom, operating out of the Swift family complex in Shopton, N.Y., invented some amazing new device, which he then had to rescue from a scheming villain with nefarious plans before he, Tom, could get it on the market for the betterment of society.

In these heroic endeavors Tom was always aided by his adoring girlfriend, Mary Nestor, and best pal Ned Newton. The books not only became teen classics, but in the 1960s inspired an entire genre of jokes, known as ″Tom Swifties,″ parodying their literary style: ″We’ve walked a long way,″ Tom said callously.

Though Tom Swift has now returned, it can be argued that he’s never really been away.

In 1954, Tom made his first return as Tom Jr., in a series of 33 books published until 1971. In those, the adventures were tailored to the Cold War - with sinister villains from such places as ″Brungaria.″

Over the next decade some of the original titles were reprinted, and in the 1980s there came yet another spate of 11 books starring Tom Jr. Overall, says the publishing house, the Tom Jr. books sold about 600,000 copies, about half that of the original series.

The new series relies on the same basic formula, updated again for the 1990s.

Tom Jr. lives with his parents - Mary Nestor is his mother - in a ″Silicon valley-like″ complex in California, and has typical teen-age interests, such as rock music and his girlfriend, Mandy Coster.

Instead of dirigibles, electronic telescopes and photo telephones, Tom Jr. is into computers, robotics, superconductivity and the like.

″Every new invention is an invitation to danger,″ says the jacket blurb on ″Tom Swift (and) The Black Dragon,″ the first of the new series.

The cover depicts an updated Tom balancing on his ″high-flying, gravity- defying, superconductive skyboard″ - a sort of esoteric surfboard he has invented which is coveted by Xavier Mace, the book’s ″elusive evil genius″ who lives in the former Swift home in upstate New York.

The new series’ creators seem as inventive as Tom Jr. himself in dreaming up topics aimed at the relevant readers.

In ″Tom Swift The Negative Zone,″ Tom seeks to create a miniature ″black hole,″ only to find himself sucked into another dimension and replaced by a criminal clone. In ″Tom Swift Cyborg Kickboxer,″ his sports exercise machine falls into unscrupulous hands and endangers the life of Rick Cantwell, the Ned Newton of the ’90s.

Editor Greenberg declined to cite sales figures, and said it was ″a little early″ to know exactly how well the books have done since the first one reached the paperback racks in April.

But she said a fourth book is due out in July, with two more in preparation, and plans to produce one every two months as long as they sell. That could be a while, she added, if the updated ″Nancy Drew″ and ″The Hardy Boys Case File,″ also produced by Archway, are any guide.

While the Tom Swift books deal with modern and futuristic scientific concepts, Greenberg said, she was ″pushing for more different ethnic types″ among the characters, who thus far are mostly white, middle-class types - as are the bad guys.

Two authors wrote the first of the new Tom Swift books, the others were done by others. All use the Victor Appleton nom de plume adopted by Edward Stratemeyer, creator of the original Tom.

Stratemeyer ″noticed all the inventions that were transforming early 20th century America,″ and modeled his main character on such innovators as Thomas Edison and Cyrus McCormick, ″the heroes of the age, larger-than-life figures who turned dreams into reality and then reaped great financial rewards,″ according to the publisher.

Some of the Swift inventions were new at the time, some not.

The motorcycle in the first 1910 book had existed in some form since 1855 but did not become popular until 1911, the publisher said.

A 1912 ″wizard camera″ presaged the portable movie camera, a 1923 invention. The ″photo telephone″ of a 1914 book foresaw the sending of photographs by telephone, a process developed in the laboratory in 1925 - paving the way to the modern-day facsimile machine.

In 1929, Tom invented a ″house on wheels,″ a year before the first house trailer. His 1931 ″sky train″ of towed gliders preceded the real thing by three years. In 1941, he created a ″magnetic silencer″ for airplane engines, a device that is yet to invented, Archway said archly.

According to Greenberg, the adverbial play-on-word ″Tom Swifty″ jokes did not really spin off from the novels. ″People kept telling them, but they’re not really in the books,″ she said.

She admitted that one had cropped up in one of the latter-day manuscripts, but didn’t know if it was intentional.