The five juvenile nominees for the Edgar are more challenging to handicap than the young adult titles were. Each is unique and very different from the other nominees. They run from one that reminded me of the Rover Boys series from almost 100 years ago, to another with a distinctly Lemony Snicket flavor, on to one set in a Norse fortress, another in a fantasy land behind an iron gate that opens for but a minute each night to access New York City, to one that will give the reader a great window on Indian music and culture. Here are brief descriptions of each one. I’ll make my prediction at the end of this blog entry.
It Happened on a Train, by Mac Barnett, is the third in a series featuring 7th grader Steve Brixton, a retired detective now making his living taking out the family trash. He retired from detective work because he discovered his idol, the author of a series of kid mysteries about the Bailey Brothers, was himself an evil criminal mastermind. This is a fun book, a real spoof of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. In this one, Steve and his best friend Dana are on a train with Steve’s mom’s doofus boyfriend Rick, headed to a mock UN-like convention in San Diego. Thanks to Rick’s arrogance and lousy driving, they missed the train taking the rest of the school’s delegation and have to take a later one. No sooner do they get aboard, than Steve runs into an attractive and mysterious girl and the mystery that surrounds her. By the end of the book, Steve and Dana have been befriended by an odd couple with lots of money and a private car at the end of the train, been kidnapped, solved a stolen car ring and discovered the lost breach where perfect waves roll in to create a surfer nirvana.
Vanished by Sheela Chari, tells the story of 11 year old Neela who dreams of becoming an accomplished musician, playing her veena. The unique Indian stringed instrument was sent to her from India by her grandmother and is said to be both unique and (Neela learns as the story unfolds) probably cursed. When she is caught in a sudden downpour and takes refuge in a church archway, an older man invites her inside and offers her hot chocolate. She is momentarily distracted by the church secretary and the man vanishes. When Neela goes to retrieve her veena from the closet where the man had her leave it, the instrument has vanished. What follows is a mix of Neela’s struggling with family issues, mostly created by the clash of being Indian and living in Boston, the effort to figure out who stole her veena and why, as well as her developing relationships with other kids in her class. The story has a very interesting end in India.
Icefall by Mathew J. Kirby, is the story of three children of a Norse king, told during a war with a neighboring king brought about by their father’s refusal to marry his older daughter to the other royal. It is told from the perspective of the second daughter (and middle child) Solveig who is intelligent and perceptive, though seen by her father as plain and unworthy. They have been sent away to a fortress at the end of a fjord abutting high peaks to be safe until the war is over. Winter sets in, leaving them blocked by ice and threatened by a traitor who lets livestock run off and poisons food eaten by the berzerkers charged with protecting the three heirs to the throne. In the midst of the heightened tensions and worry over diminishing food supplies, Solveig discovers her talent is that of a skald, one who creates and tells stories that honor deeds and praise nobility. It is this new-found skill that helps her develop the confidence and strength she must have when the fortress is overrun by enemies.
The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey, is the story of Oona Crate, wizard’s apprentice who wants no more of magic and desires to be a detective instead. Oona has good reason to want to be free of her apprenticeship as it was one of her first spells that when cast during a family outing, went awry and killed her mother and little sister. Ever since, she has been under the charge of her lovable, but absent minded uncle, the current wizard of Dark Street. During a gathering of those interested in becoming the next apprentice, her uncle is struck by a magical dagger, stolen from the Museum of Magical History that when thrown by someone’s mental powers, is rumored to cause the victim to vanish and reappear in a completely different form in a prison cell at the top of the mysterious Goblin Tower. When Oona is faced with eviction from Pendulum House, the place she and her vanished uncle own, she must use both her deductive and magical skills to find her missing uncle, identify his assailant and figure out who is behind the dastardly deed and why.
Horton Halfpott, or the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor by Tom Angleburger Is the story of good-hearted kitchen boy, Horton Halfpott, who faithfully takes his one penny weekly salary to his mother as he the sole support of her, his siblings and sickly father. Horton works, as do a host of other servants, under dire conditions at Smugwick Manor, owned by the not so nice Luggertuck family. Things would have gone on in their dreary fashion forever, save for the sudden decision by Lady Luggertuck to have her corset ‘not so tight’ one morning. This tiny bit of loosening has an amazing ripple effect through the entire manor, leading to the good lady agreeing to host a gala ball in honor of a young lady who her nephew desires to woo. Just as preparations get underway for the event, someone makes off with the famous Luggertuck Lump, a huge, rare and incredibly ugly diamond.
I eliminated Horton Halfpott and It Happened on a Train rather quickly. Both are fun reads and great books to introduce juvenile readers to. Lots of kids will get into both stories and they are very easy reads. However, they pale in comparison to the other three. The Wizard of Dark Street is a deceptive read. It starts out a tad slowly, but by chapter six or so, it’s roaring along and has a dandy blend of magic, mystery and very interesting characters. Nobody would go wrong suggesting it to a young reader.
Icefall and Vanished are a tossup for the Edgar. The latter has a great blend of family conflict, cultural issues and pure mystery. Kids reading this will come away with a very good sense of what some of the challenges people their age face when they try to balance their native heritage with growing up in our country. They will also learn about an instrument I had never heard of and will find all this new awareness is wrapped around a pretty decent mystery.
However, I’m casting my vote for Icefall. It’s a great coming of age story that blends suspense, self-awareness, betrayal, mythology and sibling issues in a gritty page turner. This is a book that will appeal to mystery lovers of any age.
Next month, I’m reviewing the third installment in Travis Thrasher’s YA series set in North Carolina as well as an intriguing story of how far a girl feel she has to go when she’s in an abusive relationship and her family can’t see it.