December 11, 2008


The Adventures of Max and Pinky: The Mystery. By Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf. $12.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 1: The Maze of Bones. By Rick Riordan. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Children’s expectations of what constitutes a mystery, and how they can have fun solving it, change dramatically with age. The latest adventure of bald-headed boy Max and marshmallow-loving Pinky the pig is right on target for the 3-8 age range for which Maxwell Eaton III regularly writes. It’s a simple, silly and simply silly story of a barn painting gone badly awry: Max and Pinky spend a whole day painting the barn a nice, traditional shade of dark red, only to find out when they wake up the next morning that the barn is…pink. They repaint it – and the next night, it changes color again. They create a “barn alarm” of which Rube Goldberg would be proud, including a fan, frog, duck, chicken, bowling ball and more, and it helps Max solve the mystery – but it doesn’t help Pinky solve the mystery, and that is part of the fun here. As usual in Eaton’s Max and Pinky books, there are some things going on in the panels that will add to kids’ enjoyment even though they do not contribute directly to the story line – from a turtle on the roof to Pinky’s dream of (what else?) marshmallows. Everything is gently humorous and never more than mildly mysterious.

     In contrast, the planned 10-book series, The 39 Clues, aims at ages 9-12 and offers a much more intense and intensive mystery – plus a high level of interactivity. Rick Riordan designed the whole series and wrote The Maze of Bones to introduce it; other authors will handle subsequent books. No matter: the style is of less consequence than the fast pace and clever plotting. The basic setup has matriarch Grace Cahill changing her will in her last minutes of life, setting her relatives off on the trail of a series of clues that will eventually lead successful mystery solvers to a huge fortune and/or great power. Plenty of the family’s members are unscrupulous, but not Amy and Dan Cahill, orphans and straight shooters who have drive, intelligence, some special talents (Dan’s ability to memorize numbers instantly) and some special problems (Amy’s fear of crowds). Although the search-the-world-for-clues theme is scarcely original, some elements of the story are, such as the notion that the Cahills are related to everyone from Houdini to Napoleon to Benjamin Franklin. There is also welcome humor dropped in from time to time. And the clues will certainly be dribbled out – the first book contains only two. Among the most interesting aspects of this series are its adjuncts and its Web use. The book comes with six game cards bound into the cover, and kids can collect more of them – with the cards containing evidence that provides pieces (admittedly small pieces) of information about the mystery. In addition, there is a Web site,, that readers can visit to play an online game while waiting for new books to come out. This multifaceted approach will nicely fit the expectations of many preteen mystery lovers. Add in some neat (if not especially stylish) writing – “he tackled her with so much force she just about ate the lawn” – and you have a book that promises a great deal for the series it introduces, while offering the members of its target audience just enough enticements to keep them coming back.

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