Sunday, July 15, 2007

Young Adult Mysteries

We wallowed a bit in nostalgia yesterday evening. In the spirit of the summer reading program, we met to discuss juvenile and young adult mystery novels, old and new. The discussion ran the gamut from R.L. Stine and the Goosebumps series, to Nancy Drew, Robert Louis Stevenson and Tintin. We even had an audio-visual demonstration – very cool.

We were in the Board Room, so decorations were limited to summer reading program paraphernalia – t-shirt, book bags, reading charts, bookmarks, etc. Thank you to the YA and Childrens departments for letting us borrow their materials. Food was “kid’s stuff.” Oreos, Cheez-its, chocolate covered raisins, S’more drops, muffin-cookies, macaroni and cheese, and wormy dirt (chocolate pudding with cookie crumbs and gummy worms – the most disgusting thing we’ve had to eat since the cat litter-box cake. Yeah folks, you really missed out).

We began our discussion with the eternal teenager Nancy Drew. Oddly enough, most of the people who read her for the meeting had never read her before, so couldn’t compare to when they read her as a child. Our first member read, as she bluntly put it, one of the “fake” Nancy Drews, a story from the Nancy Drew Files. She said it read well and seemed up-to-date. Next was The Clue of the Broken Locket, but midway into the book, the reader saw the Nancy Drew movie and forgot all about the book. She was, however, amazed at how all the adults just let Nancy do her thing, and her dad sends her off in her little Roadster by herself when he thinks she needs a change. Our member just couldn’t see her father suggesting that…. She liked the movie, by the way.

We were into full Nancy Drew mode now, so we moved straight on to The Secret of the Old Clock, in which Nancy must track down a second will to help settle an estate, and gee, guess where she found it (see title)? This was the original 1930 edition that she read, and she was sure that she must have read it as a child, but that she didn’t remember the plot and found it delightful. Our final Nancy Drew is The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, and was read by another person who had never read Nancy before. She thought that it was quite a complex plot, with missing Ming vases, secret china clay deposits, a walled compound and a mysterious man who keeps popping up in the action. She found it quite interesting.

Unfortunately no one read either a Hardy Boys or Trixie Belden mystery. I was hoping we might get into a fiery discussion on which was better and maybe finish with a nice battle using the Cheez-its. Ah well, another time….

Our next member brought a lovely 1908 edition of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I wish I’d thought of that; I loved Stevenson as a child. It has quite an involved and exciting plot: an orphan boy sold off by his uncle to a ship, the ship is wrecked, the boy teams up with a highwayman, and they plot together to reveal the evil uncle’s plot, with lots of action and derring-do throughout. She said it is a difficult read because of the language, both the different way of speaking at the time, as well as the Scottish brogue. But she could usually work out what was what because there was a glossary and (and, we felt, more to the point) illustrations. This is where children’s literature has a bit of an advantage – so much of it has illustrations. We love the pictures. And they wonder why graphic novels are so popular….

One of our members was brilliant and brought her 2 granddaughters. The three of them read children’s mysteries together. One club member thought this was clever – “book club members-in-training.” The 4th grader shared a Goosebumps series title – Say Cheese and Die by R.L. Stine. This series has been extremely popular for quite a long time, kids just love them. In this particular title, a boy finds a weird camera; the pictures it takes seem to show the future. You are instantly hooked. Her sister, a 7th grader shared The Book Without Words by Avi. It is the story of an alchemist (working illegally) and his attempts to create “life stones” so he can keep on living forever. The Book Without Words has the complete instructions, but can only be read by a person with green eyes – his servant girl, and requires others’ lives to create it. Will she live? Will he live forever?

They also read Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles, a contemporary mystery with a modern dysfunctional family. In it, an imposter is sending letters supposedly from a dead sister. Or is she an imposter? They say it is very suspenseful and scary. It was great having “the real thing” – children – discussing children's literature. They can come back and join us anytime.

Some of the young adult mysteries come into the picture now. Some of the modern Nancy Drew paperbacks were passed around (peals of laughter were heard when it made its way to the member with the 1930 edition). Other incredibly popular mystery/thriller/horror writers were brought up – R.L. Stine (yes, he of the younger Goosebumps series) and Christopher Pike, with their charmingly lurid covers and titles (Summer Horror; The Last Scream; Evil Thirst, etc). What you see is what you get.

Adult mystery writers have also branched into the Young Adult market. Robert B. Parker has written The Edenville Owls, a semi-autobiographical story that takes place after World War II, and asks such questions as who is the dark mysterious stranger; which girlfriend will win out, and who are the Edenville Owls? Though definitely focusing on middle school boys, the reader still thought the story of greater interest to adults than YAs.

Another prolific Young Adult mystery author is Joan Lowery Nixon. In The Dark and Deadly Pool (1990 winner of the Indiana Young Hoosier Award), a girl in her first week on a new job at a hotel pool notices that someone has been in the pool after closing. Thefts start to occur in the hotel, and a dead body is found in the pool. Lots of suspense, and a quick, good read. If you’re strapped for time, her mysteries make easy, quick reads.

Tartabull’s Throw by Henry Garfield is aimed at older young adults. It is the story of a baseball player, a werewolf and time-travel – yet more about relationships than action. The reader said definitely older Young Adults.

On to another flurry of recommendations (like eating potato chips, you can’t read just one). Shakespeare’s Secret, a Junior Library Guild Selection, by Elise Broach was deemed very good. The Case of the Missing Marquess by two-time Edgar Award winner Nancy Springer was also very good, and featured Sherlock Holmes’ much younger sister. Adult mystery author Aimee Thurlo has also written a juvenile mystery – Spirit Line – said to be good. And the Roman Mystery Series by Caroline Lawrence (our member had just read the 2nd in the series, Secrets of Vesuvius) was also highly recommended.

But best of all, 5 stars and general raves, is The Falconer’s Knot: a Story of Friars, Flirtation and Foul Play by Mary Hoffman, which was listed for The Guardian children's fiction prize, 2007. This has a Shakespearian plot – a young man posing as a monastic novice to escape a murder charge, and a young girl forced into an order. Think “Shakespeare meets Brother Cadfael.” Highly, highly recommended.

At this point we went from the sublime to the ridiculous. From a 5-star recommendation to The Further Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson. This series consists of extremely lighthearted romps at the ranch with head of security, Hank the cowdog. In this particular case, Hank develops a case of “eye-crosserosis;” an injury to his nose causes Hank to look at it too long and his eyes get stuck (Mama always said this would happen). He eventually finds his way to Madame Moonshine, a burrowing owl with the right combination to cure his affliction (turn nose right twice, left three, push). Shakespeare this isn’t, just silly fun.

On now to a children’s classic and Edgar Award winner (1968), The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, made into a 1984 TV movie. An African-American family moves to a new house in Ohio that was once a stop on the underground railroad (Dies Drear was an abolitionist), complete with secret passages and ghosts. The real story is about the relationship between the father and son finally brought together by the uncertain circumstances. Very spooky.

On finally, to our audio-visual presentation, an extremely thoughtful overview of Tintin that I will barely be able to scratch the surface of here. The adventures of the character Tintin by Hergé (Georges Remi) were in some ways the original graphic novel. Hergé began writing in 1929 and continued until his death in 1983, so the stories cover a wide gamut of time periods and points of view. Our MM member was hooked as a child and saved his money to buy one every year and wore them out reading them. Tintin is a Boy Scout-like character, always prepared for whatever crisis confronted him.

In King Ottakar’s Sceptre, the king must display his sceptre on a particular day or be forced to abdicate - so of course there is a plot afoot to steal the scepter. It is a classic locked door mystery – how was the scepter stolen from a locked and guarded room? Naturally Tintin solves the case and foils the plotters. New characters are added with each book and become regulars populating the Tintin universe – the Thompson and Thomson identical twins with their mustaches pointing in opposite vertical directions, and Snowy the dog (whose French name, Milou, is that of the author’s former girlfriend). The Milanese Nightingale Bianca Castafiore sings the same operatic song at every appearance (the Jewel Song from Charles Gounod's Faust - the audio part of the presentation), and in King Ottokar's Sceptre causes rabbits to flee in terror. Tintin, trapped in an automobile during her performance, is grateful for safety glass.

What our presenter was most impressed with was the steady growth in the characters, as well as improvement in Hergé as both writer and artist. Themes are sometimes more up-to-date than the settings, almost prescient of things yet to come, and stories are quite international. On a fun note, Hergé, like Alfred Hitchcock, inserted himself (and sometimes others) into the story. There is also some controversy with racist stereotypes in his earlier work, which must be viewed as a product of his times, and which was replaced by an increasingly progressive development in his ideas and work. A fascinating presentation, and was rewarded with a round of applause; an excellent finale to our discussion.