Connect with us


Young Sleuths Hot on the Trail of Their Own Identities



All it takes is a book cover in a certain shade of yellow, or the tangy flavor of red Fruit Stripe, to transform me into a 9-year-old lying on the couch with a tower of Nancy Drew mysteries and a mouth full of gum. I can still feel that frantic need to learn who had stolen the plans, or hidden the jewels, or switched the trunks on the cruise ship. Now, though, I realize the central mystery was Nancy herself. The amateur sleuth was brave, clever and beautiful. But who was she, really? Even if you obsessed over reading every book in the series, as I did, you’d never learn much more about her. Developing the characters was never the point.

Four new middle grade mysteries take the opposite approach. Their intricate plots keep you guessing, for sure, but these stories also fulfill the promise of the best novels aimed at young readers: to shed light on the deeper mysteries of identity and self.

Take, for instance, Katryn Bury’s debut, “Drew Leclair Gets a Clue.” The seventh grader Drew Leclair may be named after Nancy Drew, but she has a skill set Nancy could only dream of. She’s grown up on true-crime stories, and her favorite book, “In the Shadow of a Killer,” is a primer on criminal profiling. When it turns out that a troll has taken over the unofficial student-run Instagram account at her school — and Drew herself is the target of the troll’s anonymous posts — she uses her profiling toolbox to figure out who’s behind the hack. Meanwhile, Drew is also dealing with a host of other worries, from her mother’s affair with her school counselor (with whom she’s left the family to go live in a yurt in Kauai) to the way her best friend, a boy, is suddenly interested in kissing.

The mystery comes to a satisfying conclusion — Drew is able to expose the culture of bullying at her school — but the story really shines when she begins to process the feelings she’s been avoiding. Does she want her mother to come back or not? Does she like boys or girls? Does she trust her friends? Drew digs deep and talks everything through.

Note the delightful relationship she has with her dad. Nancy Drew’s father, in all his wisdom, never thought to plan “Murder and Mayhem” movie nights for his titian-haired daughter.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and it can be hard to keep track of its many strands, but the cast of characters (and the community in which they live) is richly imagined.

Felix Fine, the sixth-grade protagonist of “Nothing Is Little,” by Carmella Van Vleet, is also familiar with adult crime-solving tactics. He has just joined the Forensic Science Club, where he’s acquiring the skills necessary to solve a series of “staged crimes” at his middle school. With every fingerprint he analyzes and witness he interviews, Felix hopes he will also get closer to solving another mystery: locating his birth dad.

Growth hormone deficiency has left Felix smaller than some 8-year-olds, and he’s starting daily shots to help him grow the way he’s supposed to. Felix doesn’t mind being short — he even has a collection of funny T-shirts that say things like “No, I’m not an elf.” When he discovers that his father, too, was short, it’s all the evidence he needs to launch a full investigation.

Felix’s model detective is Sherlock Holmes — he’s thrilled when another character nicknames him “Shortlock Holmes” — and the book’s title comes from a Holmes quote: “To a great mind, nothing is little.” Like Drew Leclair’s story, though, Felix’s is as internal as it is external. As he follows clues to his father’s identity, he learns about the person and friend he himself is beginning to be (while making some age-appropriate blunders).

His maturity is tested in one over-the-top scene that strains believability but also puts the rest of his worries in perspective. Felix’s problems are manageable. He may not get exactly what he wants by the end, but he gets more than he bargained for.

Chester Keene, the titular hero of Kekla Magoon’s “Chester Keene Cracks the Code,” is also a sixth grader with an absent dad. Unlike Felix, however, Chester knows the reason his father is missing: He’s a spy on a secret mission. And Chester is in training to be just like him. “Keen observation skills are a hallmark of effective spycraft,” Chester says. “You have to know everything, see everything. … Information is power. A small detail can tell an entire story.” Observing suits Chester just fine, as he prefers a life on the margins of middle school, shaped by his many rituals.

When a ferocious bully fixates on Chester, he emails his dad for help. His dad never calls or visits — he never breaks his cover — but he sends thoughtful responses full of advice. Then, out of nowhere, he sends a task, a puzzle Chester must solve with the help of a free-spirited girl named Skye. The purpose is unclear, but Chester trusts his father’s plan.

Chester is a sensitive, sympathetic character whom you root for from the first page. When Skye bursts into the school cafeteria, though, it’s as if Chester is leaving black and white for Technicolor. Together, these characters crackle — I can’t remember the last time I read such perfect dialogue.

The puzzle is clever. While it puts Chester and Skye in the way of some criminals, there’s also another scheme unfolding, and it’s a surprise. Readers might guess the secret identity of Chester’s dad, but suspense builds as we wait for it to dawn on Chester.

“Chester Keene Breaks the Code” delivers a truly fresh mystery — along with a heist, some heartbreak, some unforgettable characters and plenty of laser tag.

One of these novels is not quite like the others. “Wretched Waterpark,” the first book in the Sinister Summer series by Kiersten White, is wickedly weird. The Sinister-Winterbottom siblings have been packed off to their Aunt Saffronia for the summer, although none of them can quite remember how they got to her house. Let’s just say she’s not the warm and cozy kind of aunt. “How often would you say you need to eat?” she asks. “If I set out some food in the morning, will that be enough?” — and things only get worse from there. She leaves them at a water park and tells them a week there should be enough time to find something that has been lost. Exactly what it is or how they are supposed to find it are questions for the 12-year-old twins and their 16-year-old sister — who is always on her phone — to explore.

Fathoms of Fun has a gothic theme, with prices in Roman numerals and staff in lace collars. The water slides shoot out of gargoyles on a stone tower, and the food at the snack bar is unspeakable: jellied eel and pickled oysters, followed by a Victorian mince pie. After some adventures, however, the kids discover their mission, and the caper rolls along to its Scooby Doo-style conclusion. In their own way, the Sinister-Winterbottoms, too, are uncovering family secrets.

The mystery here is almost secondary to the humor, which is very broad — kids may crack up sooner than this reviewer did. But the darkly comic tone will appeal to anyone who loved “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

I must admit I had a visceral reaction to White’s descriptions of Fathoms of Fun. They made me long for dazzling blue water, scorching pavement, stacks of striped towels and the scent of fried dough. If that’s not a recommendation for a summer read, I don’t know what is.

Kate Egan’s first middle grade novel, “Golden Ticket,” was published in June.

DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE, by Katryn Bury | 288 pp. | Clarion | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12
NOTHING IS LITTLE, by Carmella Van Vleet | 224 pp. | Holiday House | $18.99 | Ages 8 to 12
CHESTER KEENE CRACKS THE CODE, by Kekla Magoon | 304 pp. | Wendy Lamb | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12
WRETCHED WATERPARK (Sinister Summer, Book 1), by Kiersten White | 256 pp. | Delacorte | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12


Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?



Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

Continue Reading


In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History



THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled” — appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

Continue Reading


In Defense of Men? Caitlin Moran’s Answer Will Surprise You.



WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was giving a speech, and she was annoyed. For years, she’d been on this circuit — talking about her books, her columns, feminism and the state of womanhood. Everywhere she went, she seemed to get the same question: What was her advice for men?

Men, of course, are not her area of expertise. She isn’t one, for starters, though she is married to a man. She hasn’t birthed any, though she has daughters. Her successful writing career hasn’t been about men; she’s best known for her books “How to Be a Woman” and “How to Build a Girl.” Anyway, shouldn’t somebody be asking a man these questions?

Moran dismissed these inquiries with a joke: “My advice to men? I guess, a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher — rather than next to the dishwasher?”

The questions kept coming — eventually, from Moran’s own teenage girls. But it took a conversation with four boys from one daughter’s school — during a Zoom for International Women’s Day, no less — to really shake her.

“Men are just seen as bad, or toxic,” one boys tells her. “We’re blamed for everything. People just automatically presume we’re all rapists.”

When the call was over, the girls pleaded with her to recommend the boys some reading, a TV show, anything that would help close the gap between the sexes. She couldn’t think of anything. At least not anything that was useful and entertaining.

Moran changed course.

The result is “What About Men?,” an irreverent, albeit anecdotal, dig into the claim made in incel chat rooms, on Reddit and in the so-called manosphere that it’s easier to be a woman than it is to be a straight white man today. And, guess what? She believes it.

No, really.

In part because straight white men are still seen as the “default,” Moran writes, “it’s almost as if the actual details of their lives have become see-through. Invisible.”

That, and they can’t blame the patriarchy for their problems. For women, she writes, “change begins with the delicious moment” when you realize the problem is not your own. “But how can men blame ‘the patriarchy’ when, as a straight white man, you look like the patriarchy? Then you’re just in a ‘Fight Club’ situation, where you’re hitting yourself in the face.”

“What About Men?” is written in Moran’s usual confessional style — except that she’s defending the very people we’ve grown accustomed to her poking fun at.

Moran begins by interviewing men ages 40 to 55 (a hilariously narrow slice of the population), about the messages they received about how to be a man. For instance, many boys learn they “have to hit someone,” and there are apparently rules about this playground violence: Slapping is insulting. Kicking in the groin could be mistaken for “a bit gay.” For those with no physical skills, there’s always humor — “a currency and a power,” Moran learns.

Moran talks to a friend in an eye-opening chapter about being addicted to porn. (This person is not an expert, per se; just someone she happened to chat with. The majority of Moran’s subjects have this vibe.) She takes on unattainable beauty standards for men, who don’t have a “body positivity” movement to flood their Instagram with “rolls, stretch marks, lavish thighs and triumphant wibbly-wobbly bums.” She interviews a friend named Hugo about pickup artists, explores why men don’t go to the doctor (fear of judgment; fear of death; fear of looking weak) and takes on aging.

Moran also dispatches some womanly advice.

About sex: Women don’t really care about size, though “in the weeks, and sometimes months, after a breakup, women will almost always accuse their ex of having a tiny penis.”

About libido: “Women are as horny as men.”

About why women often don’t act on that libido: “The toughest thing about being a heterosexual woman is that the thing that, very often, we love the most — that you are bigger than us; your beautiful strong hands; the solidity of your arms; the weight of your body on top of us … — is also the thing we are most scared of.”

Those hoping for a sociological dig into men and masculinity will be disappointed. Her strength is in writing what she knows, and it is impossible even for the most clever and comprehensive author to sum up an entire sex.

And anyway, “What About Men?” isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s meant to be funny. But that at times, without research of any kind to support her clever observations — and no, a stoned conversation with her husband’s balls does not count — she runs the risk of perpetuating the very stereotypes she’s trying to unravel.

Ultimately, Moran seems to approach the world with irreverence. In the case of this book, readers should do the same.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times.

WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran | 320 pp. | Harper | $29.99

Continue Reading