Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 39 Clues

At our house, we sometimes fight over books. Right now, we're fighting over book 6 of The 39 Clues (I'm winning). We began the series about 2 months ago, and haven't looked back since. If you're looking for a good series to start your 3rd-5th grader on, this might be the one for you.

The 10-book series was conceived and mapped out by Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame) and he penned the first installment, The Maze of Bones. His romping, adventurous style and light, sarcastic humor are evident throughout. If you've read the Percy Jackson books, you'll be familiar with the flavor this one brings to the table. Subsequent books have been written by a host of children's authors -- Peter Lerangis, Gordon Korman, Jude Watson, Patrick Carman, Linda Sue Park, Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Amy and Dan Cahill are at their grandmother's funeral. She was their only true family after their parents died, and now she's gone, too. At the funeral, they discover that Grace has laid down a challenge, not just to them but to the other far-flung members of the Cahill clan. Take a million dollars now and walk away, or give it up and start the hunt for the legendary 39 clues. Why give up the money? Because the possessor of the 39 clues will have the ultimate power, will, in effect, rule the world.

So begins Amy and Dan's adventure, as they criss-cross the globe looking for the 39 clues, occasionally helped, hindered or flat out sabotaged by their unsavoury relatives who are also engaged in the hunt.

Each book takes place in just one or two locales -- Philadelphia and Paris, Egypt, Australia and Java, South Korea, Austria and Italy, Russia. Most of the books revolve in some way around historical figures (who, the series claims, were all Cahills in one way or another) -- Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Amelia Earhart, Rasputin. Each book weaves historical information throughout the narrative, but in a way that's important to the story. Kids aren't going to feel like they're being bludgeoned with lessons. My husband was laughing because he'd never actually heard of Rasputin until he read book 5 and that spurred him to look him up on Wikipedia, as well as a couple of Russian landmarks mentioned in the book. There's also quite a bit of geography as well and we've had fun tracing Dan and Amy's journey on a world map. It's interesting stuff and provides kids with the kind of cultural capital that will probably pay off when they take their SATs in 7 or 8 years or so.

My one concern was how consistent the story would be given that so many different authors were writing it, but I have to say that over the 6 books I've read so far, the tone and pacing are remarkably constant. The only book that seemed a little out of step with the others was book 3, The Sword Thief, written by Peter Lerangis. It's the only book where Nellie, Dan and Amy's au pair, uses the occasional OMG. In fact, in that book, Nellie seemed most like a caricature and the pacing seemed faster than in other volumes. Lerangis also wrote book 7, which will be released February 2, 2010, so I will be curious to see if my impression of book 3 is validated by book 7.

Like so many things, there's also a 39 Clues website where kids can participate in the search for the clues. Mostly this is just a game and puzzle site, but it seems harmless enough. My kids lost interest in it after about a week.

The books are funny, they're exciting, they're full of history and geography. They're also very nice, library-bound hardcovers, which makes them durable and (says my 8 year old) comfortable in the hands. They're on my list to buy for my 10 year old niece and nephew and we've already pre-ordered The Viper's Nest (book 7) for my daughter. A great choice if you have 8-12 year olds to buy for this Christmas. These are an imprint of Scholastic, so if you live near a Scholastic Warehouse sale, they should be very available, often at a nice discount.

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