Calling all summer sleuths

Boys and girls tackle the mysterious in four new books for ages 9-12.

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In honor of Encyclopedia Brown, for whom the end of school means it’s time to open up his garage office and problem-solve for the children of Idaville, we hereby declare this the Summer of the Word Problem! Actually, summer’s a lovely season for a good mystery (I happen to like fall, winter, and spring, as well), and this year offers a variety of new mystery stories sure to tempt 9- to 12-year-olds.

These aren’t mysteries in the sense of the Hardy Boys or the Boxcar Children. Instead, they feature boys and girls trying to get to the bottom of questions that range from the deeply personal (Who am I and where did I come from?) to the humorous (What are those goofy people in the Revolutionary War costumes doing in the woods at night?) to the utterly baffling (Where did the giant statue go, and how do you hide something that weighs 1,000 pounds, anyway?)

For Sam MacKenzie, “summer” and “reading” go together about as well as a sardine and pickle sandwich. The “skinny but tough” kid at the center of Newbery Honor winner Patricia Reilly Giff’s new novel Eleven (Random House, 165 pp., $15.99, ages 9-12) has a learning disability and has pretty much given up on the idea of reading.

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“The lines moved like black spiders, stretching their legs and waving their feelers across the pages.”
When searching the attic for his birthday present, Sam comes across a picture of himself as a toddler, with the headline “Missing.” He can’t read the accompanying newspaper article, and he’s afraid to ask his beloved grandfather, Mack, if he’s been kidnapped.

So, he turns to the new girl in school to help him figure out who he is and where he came from. “Eleven” might zip a little too fast through the plot, but there are elements to savor. Giff does a great job making Sam’s reading disability part of the mystery without turning the novel into a “message” book. But the relationships truly make the book. The friendship between Sam and Caroline is excellently rendered, as is my favorite part: Sam’s lovely extended family.

Family secrets are also at the heart of Tim Wynne-Jones’s Rex Zero, King of Nothing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 218 pp., $16.95, ages 9-12). Wynne-Jones, who won an Edgar Award for “The Boy in the Burning House,” is a wonderful writer (we adore his “Zoom” books about an explorer feline), and his “Rex Zero” stories are warm, vivid reminiscences of what it was like to be 11 in 1960s Ottawa, Ontario. They are full of detail, and there’s no false nostalgia. (I could have used a little: At one point, Rex’s buddy finds his older brother’s stash of centerfolds.) Rex and his friends are surrounded by what tend to be regarded as modern troubles: divorce, spousal abuse, and traumatic stress disorder. Lousy teachers have, alas, always been with us. To foil the dread Miss Garr, Rex and his friends come up with a truly old-fashioned solution: a letter-writing campaign.

Meanwhile, Rex finds an address book and, in trying to return it to its owner, meets a beautiful damsel in distress. But his nascent detective career causes him to miss the “Our Mistress Day” – excuse me, Armistice Day, ceremony – bitterly disappointing his father, a veteran still haunted by World War II. While the other books reviewed here are fine for younger children, parents will either want to be available to talk about the issues in “Rex Zero,” or read it with anyone younger than a fifth grader.

Naturally, that’s the book my 6-year-old chose for his bedtime story, so I distracted my art-loving first-grader with the mobiles of Alexander Calder (ooh, shiny!). Calder’s whimsical-yet-sophisticated art is at the center of Blue Balliett’s new puzzle novel, The Calder Game (Scholastic Press, 375 pp., $17.99, ages 9-12). Those unfamiliar with Balliett’s work should start with her Edgar Award-winning “Chasing Vermeer,” but fans of that book will be thrilled to join Calder Pillay and his friends Petra and Tommy on another adventure. This time around, Calder and his father have gone to Woodstock, England, where an Alexander Calder sculpture has just been donated to the 1,000-year-old village. The villagers are less than thrilled to have the modern art plunked down in the middle of all that quaintness, and Calder Pillay also feels less than welcome. Then, both boy and sculpture vanish overnight and Petra and Tommy rush to England to help Calder’s father find him. Balliett’s mixture of art, math, history, and philosophy is definitely a winning one, but the resolution to the mystery isn’t quite as satisfying this time around. There are a few too many coincidences, and a sour character’s overnight (off-screen) transformation strikes a false note. But to counterbalance that, Balliett fills the book with British guerrilla artist Banksy; a castle, complete with maze; and Pummie, a giant, one-eyed black cat. All that, and a coded message embedded in Brett Helquist’s illustrations.

Younger readers will get a kick out of Morgy’s Musical Summer, by Maggie Lewis (Houghton Mifflin 100 pp., $15, ages 9-12). Morgy MacDougal-MacDuff is off to music camp with his trumpet and his name carefully labeled on everything, including the soap. Sadly, the camp, run by Col. Hiram Profundo, is on shaky financial footing and is in danger of being turned into condos. And Morgy keeps seeing strange visions in the woods at night. Plus, being a “promising beginner” in a camp full of prodigies can be tough, and Morgy comes in for some bullying as he struggles to master his part in the Concerto Fabuloso. The plot is a touch crammed, but the Morgy books are good fun (and fun to read aloud). Readers heading off to summer camp for the first time will enjoy this outing.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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