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Calling all summer sleuths

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

By By Yvonne Zipp / June 18, 2008

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.

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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.

“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.


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