Hi folks. In addition to being a one-person library staff, I also write young adult fantasy, short stories set in Maine with a dark or mystery twist and two weekly newspaper columns. I’ll be checking in monthly to talk about the mystery scene for teens and juveniles.
First off a comment on one area where I feel the library world is behind the times; proper subject headings for teen fiction. If you search by subject for teen mystery, you are likely to find very little. For some unknown reason, the library world, or at least the part that decides subject headings is still stuck with using juvenile (fill in the blank with a topic) for most young adult fiction. The remaining titles get stuck under subject headings generally assigned to adult fiction. At the same time, we’re still assigning Bildungsroman to lots of young adult titles. Ask anyone between 12 and 18 if they have heard of bildungsroman and you’re likely to get a response to the effect that they must be a new heavy metal band out of Iceland. I’m probably going to receive a visit from the library police for this heresy, but I have broad shoulders.
If you were an avid reader when you were twelve, it’s very likely you cut your reading teeth on either the Hardy Boys series or Nancy Drew. Some of you probably read both series like I did. They were fast reads, had decent plots and there were enough of them to keep you going for a couple years or more. If your reading history goes back even further, you may remember other Maine-relevant series from 1915-1930 like the Rover Boys, the Brighton Boys, etc. that all featured the same brothers/best friends in each book and had a mystery that was central to the plot.
Teen mysteries have continued to be a distinct part of the offerings for 12-18 year old readers, but in recent years, they have been overshadowed by the explosion of fantasy and its more recent sub-genre urban fantasy. I am happy to say that mysteries seem to be making a nice come-back as a distinct fiction genre.
This month I’m profiling two that deserve more visibility than either is likely to get. One is set in the early 1950s in Florida, the other in modern day Texas. One is quite funny and succeeds despite excess back-story and detail, the other combines an edgy mystery with current moral issues. Both will appeal to many adults who like mystery fiction as well as to teen readers.
Montooth and the Canfield Witch by Robert Jay (ISBN 9780615401195, Cloverleaf Corp. 2010, $27.99) is the first in a series titled the Carty Anderson Novels. Carty is one of four eighth graders in 1950’s Florida. Her friends include Blake Holmes a typical white kid, Hale Wending, a black kid who is a gifted baseball player and Maximilian Stein, a Jewish boy whose family emigrated from Europe following World War 2. Add in a 21 foot alligator who was raised to think it was a duck, Sally Canfield, a reclusive young woman whose family has been plagued by rumors they were witches ever since they were driven out of Salem, Massachusetts 200 years before the story takes place, a completely amoral killer nicknamed Cruz Cruz whose dimwitted henchman grew up on the ramshackle farm adjoining Sally Canfield’s property, Haywood Dolder, the arrogant and lazy son of a local car dealer who, with his gang, is Carty’s rival in everything and you have a very colorful cast of characters.
The story revolves around Carty and friends science project which requires teams to gather 27 different rare plants over a weekend. When Haywood’s gang checks out all the books from the school library that contain pictures of the plants, things get sticky. Add the fact that Cruz Cruz and Co. believe Sally Canfield has treasure buried on her property and the fun begins. Readers will find some similarities to Carl Hiaasen’s young adult novels and will appreciate the attention to detail the author pays in order to make the story time and place authentic. Book two, Montooth 2: Race for the Ryland Ruby is out now and on my TBR list.
The Less-Dead by April Lurie (ISBN 9780385736756, Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010, $16.99), is a much starker book. Noah Nordstrom’s dad is a noted radio evangelist who has a weekly call-in show in Austin, Texas. Noah’s relationship with his father is strained by the rigidity of fundamentalist religion and he rebels by doing outlandish things with his best friend, Carson. One such activity results in them getting busted for drug use and being sent to an alternative school. Will’s interactions with some of the other students there open his eyes even further to the effects of religious bigotry. When a gay teen in foster care is murdered and Will begins to suspect the killer is someone who was calling his dad’s show, he confronts his father over his response to the caller, creating more friction between father and son. Then Noah befriends a gay teen, Will, who is living on the streets and has to deal with his own confusion about homosexuality, particularly when Will expresses a romantic interest. This dilemma not only unsettles Noah, it results in yet another confrontation when he brings Will home, hoping his father can find a safe place to live for his new friend. His dad’s reaction, coming from his religious rigidity, widens the father-son gap even more.
When Will is murdered in the same manner as the first gay teen, Noah has to work through personal guilt and family chaos in order to use Will’s journal to play detective. The rest of the story makes for riveting reading.