Nate the Great: Hardboiled Detective in Training

Nate the Great

Nate the Great (image from amazon.com)

I love detective stories. Not modern detectives (too much blood and guts for me), but old-fashioned, tough talking detectives, those stylishly dressed men who trade quips with clever dames. I make no apologies for my literary crush on Archie Goodwin. So, with a long list of literary detectives on the children’s shelf, which is the best option to start kids on a lifetime of appreciation for snappy comebacks in the midst of nifty crime solving?

My best candidate: that classic crime-solver, Nate the Great.

If you haven’t reread Nate the Great since you grew up and encountered his adult counterparts, you might be surprised to see all the ways Nate is the perfect training ground for future gumshoe fans.

  • His tough but quirky persona. Nate is a tough guy. Not unfriendly, but business-like … as one has to be in the crime solving game. You can see it in his introduction of himself in his very first story (called, not surprisingly, Nate the Great): “My name is Nate the Great. I am a detective. I work alone.” Even when talking to a client, he’s a cut-to-the-chase kind of kid: “’Stay right where you are. Don’t touch anything. DON’T MOVE!’ ‘My foot itches,’ Annie said. ‘Scratch it,’ I said.” This is the kind of no nonsense talk that should inspire confidence in clients (even if Annie has to ask him, “Are you sure you’re a detective?”). Along with a tough exterior, every detective needs those little touches that set him apart, that become a signature of his style. In that first story we encounter Nate’s “detective suit” (trench coat and official looking hat), his love of pancakes, and his admirable habit of leaving a note for his mother, typically in cursive, when he goes out on a case: “Dear mother, I will be back. I am wearing my rubbers. Love, Nate the Great.”
  • His kooky sidekicks. In the first book of the Nate the Great series, we meet two girls who will stick with Nate through many of his later books. His first client is Annie, an African-American little girl with a giant dog named Fang. Nate explains that Annie “smiles a lot,” adding “I would like Annie if I liked girls.” We also meet Annie’s friend, Rosamond. I would venture to guess that Rosamond was the first Goth girl most of us met through literature. Seriously. She has long black hair, green eyes, and she’s “covered with cat hair.” She also has four black cats: Big Hex, Little Hex, Plain Hex, and Super Hex. Perhaps my favorite out of all the charming illustrations in Nate the Great is the picture of Rosamond’s room and her many, many pictures of black cats, each done in a different pop-art style. These friends not only fit into the mold of a classic detective story, they manage to be diverse and interesting in a way that’s refreshingly casual. All too often characters in children’s books are saddled with a set of friends who seem self-consciously unique, as if the author felt the need to announce, “Look at these DIVERSE and UNIQUE characters!!” Nate’s girls are different in a way that seems organic to the story.
  • His child-sized mysteries. So, there’s a bit of a central problem with mysteries for kids. A mystery needs a crime … but the idea of kids grappling with crimes on their own quickly becomes uncomfortable. I mean, I’m thrilled that you found that diamond necklace, Cam Jansen, but isn’t it time to, you know … call the police already? The mysteries in Nate the Great are the kinds of “crimes” that kids encounter every day. Adults may consider them to be just inconveniences, but kids know the truth. Trust me. In my classroom, I have had some version of this conversation too many times to count:

Child: Someone stole my _____________ (boots, pencil, spelling folder)!

Me: Really? Are you sure someone actually stole it?

Child: Well, it’s not here, is it?

Me: So you mean your ______________ is missing, right?

Child: That’s what I said! Someone stole it!

There is no point in trying to argue the logic of what a dastardly thief  would do with someone else’s spelling folder … the crime is clearly defined. Those kinds of mysteries of inconvenience are exactly what Nate takes on. He may be a little personally disappointed by the size of those crimes – in the first story he is hoping for a call to look for “lost diamonds or pearls or a million dollars” – but he’s nevertheless willing to investigate them. The solutions are always satisfying, too, typically requiring the characters to look more closely at something already in plain sight.

  • His hard-boiled tone. Writing a book for early readers is not easy. I can only imagine that, as an author, it can feel like a constant set of restrictions: you don’t want to use a word that’s too big or a sentence that’s too long, so you’re forced to fit your story into the box of those limitations. There are a very, very few authors who manage to make those limitations an asset to the story. Mo Willems does it with his Elephant and Piggie stories. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are poetic in their simplicity. Dr. Seuss was a master of it. And to those names, I would add Marjorie Weinman Sharmat with her Nate the Great stories. These are technically “early reader” books – they would be considered to be at an end of first grade or beginning of second grade level, typically – but all those features that make them easier to read don’t feel artificial to the story. On the contrary: the short
    Nate the Great and the Pillowcase (image from amazon.com)

    Nate the Great and the Pillowcase (image from amazon.com)

    sentences, simple vocabulary, line breaks, and repetition just feel like the way any hard-boiled detective would talk. Take this dramatic moment when Nate meets Annie’s dog, Fang: “Fang was there. He was big, all right. And he had big teeth. He showed them to me. I showed him mine. He sniffed me. I sniffed him back. And we were friends.” The conventions of early reader children’s literature dovetail so perfectly with the conventions of detective stories that they don’t feel like restrictions as much as an artistic choice by the author.

 

If you’re looking for a story to grab your early readers, to provide them with a genuinely engaging plot and characters, look no farther than Nate the Great. And if you’re an adult fan of the genre, do yourself a favor: put on your detective suit, make yourself a plate of pancakes, and revisit this little detective.

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If You Like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle …

Cover of "Math Rashes"

Cover of Math Rashes

Most of the books on my regular read aloud rotation have some specific source – maybe they were childhood favorites of my own, or books that were passed on to me by colleagues, or stories I sought out after reading a good review.  Math Rashes is different … so different that I can’t even really remember where I found it (a price tag on the front suggests it may have been a remaindered book from my favorite book store, but I have no memory of buying it).  I would consider this book a bit of a diamond in the rough, but one that has become a Must Read at the beginning of the school year.  I usually save one particular story to read later in the year (right before our recorder concert), so this week the class and I got back to the world of W.T. Melon Elementary School for the final story in the collection.  As I read, I was reminded of two things.  First, every third grade classroom in the country should have this book.  (Just my humble opinion.)  And secondly, there’s something magical about the chemistry of a book and a group of people, whether that group is a classroom or a family, something that can only happen when you share a truly great story.

Math Rashes (written by Douglas Evans, pictures by Larry Di Fiori) is a collection of short stories about a class of third graders at the W.T. Melon School.  Each story focuses on a different child in the class, and each child has a particular personality quirk or minor character flaw … nothing too serious, but all very, very familiar to anyone who has spent time with third graders.  (It’s no surprise that the author has experience as a teacher and great connections for teacher on his website.)  When I read this book, I often have to pause to ask, “Naming no names, does anyone know someone who acts like this character in this book?”  Typically ALL the hands in the class go up.  There’s Morgan, who chatters on and on endlessly and can’t figure out why her friends don’t want to spend time with her.  There’s George, who never quite listens to all the directions.  There’s Mimi, who can never seem to find a pencil when she needs one.  In each story, some magical intervention leads to the student learning a lesson.  For example, Andrew’s constant doodling means that he has to stay inside to finish the work he didn’t have time to do.  At first, he’s delighted when his doodles come to life and offer to complete his work for him.  But when the doodles start drawing other doodles and jumping to other students’ desks to do their work, it takes some fast work with an eraser to save the day.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm book cover

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The format of this book is very similar to the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories: child has a problem, magic intervenes, child fixes the problem.  I personally loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was growing up and would still recommend them today, but I think Math Rashes is a better fit for a classroom.  The problems Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle solved seemed a bit like parent-identified problems (not wanting to go to bed, eating slowly), and I was always a little mystified by how completely helpless the children’s parents were.  I think one of the reasons my students love the stories in Math Rashes is not just that they identify with the characters, but that they identify with the friends of the characters.  Most students can see why having a “chatterbox” for a friend could be annoying.  A friend who doesn’t want to go to bed, or who eats dinner too slowly?  Not so much.

So what is it that elevates this book to the realm of Must Read?  Well, it’s not so much what happens while we read the story … it’s what happens afterwards.  Maybe it’s something about the familiarity of the setting or the “third-grade-ness” of the stories, but the characters and incidents in this book find a way of working themselves into our classroom culture.  Children will use them as a common reference, a part of our classroom language.  For example, in the story “The Pencil Loser,” Mimi is constantly missing her pencils, which she leaves all over the classroom.  She discovers that a tiny pencil-shaped creature called Ti-2 (short for Ticonderoga Number 2) is delighted by her bad habit, because it gives him a chance to collect the lost pencils, grind them into shavings, and sell the shavings to the chefs of Pennsylvania to use in their recipes.  Pencil losing is a persistent problem in the classroom.  Reading this story doesn’t exactly cure us of our curse, but it paints it in a different light.  “Look out!  Ti-2 will get that!” students will squeal as they scoop a pencil off the floor, repeating his catch phrase, “What I find, I grind!”  After reading about Andrew and his doodling problem, children may continue to doodle … but my reminders about erasing doodles in the margins are usually met with giggles and comments like, “Remember what happened to Andrew!”  In fact, students start to use the names of the characters as if they were classmates (a practice that can get confusing when they share first names with real classmates!).

The important thing is that these references are spontaneous; they come out of a real sense that these stories belong to us in a shared way.  I suspect that if I drove the conversation (say, by making a poster of Ti-2 or bringing his name up in a scolding way) the power of that ownership would be lost.  It’s only with a real sense of connection that the stories we read can become a shared experience, just like memories of a field trip or funny anecdotes from our year together.  Dr. Michael Schiro writes about the power of those shared stories in his work on oral storytelling in the classroom, and I see it through certain read alouds as well.  When a book becomes such a point of connection that the characters in it feel like members of the class … I would say that book qualifies as a Must Read.  Even if it came from the remainder bin.

If You Like Winnie the Pooh, Then You’ll Love …

Winnie the Pooh Story

Winnie the Pooh Story (Photo credit: sanctumsolitude)

Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (written by A.A. Milne, illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard) fall into the category of Genuine Children’s Classics.  The characters, the incidents, even some of the phrases (“Oh, bother”) have seeped into our common culture.  Unfortunately, that cultural seepage means that, when I pull out Winnie the Pooh to read to my class, there are sometimes groans and mutterings about “baby books.”  You see, many children have spent their childhood surrounded by the Winnie the Pooh empire – with Pooh characters popping up everywhere from cartoons to diaper decorations – without ever experiencing the stories themselves.

Once children actually read the stories, they’re almost always amazed at how truly funny they are (“in a way little kids wouldn’t understand,” I usually explain).  The use of language, the situations, and the tone are all much more appealing to children over the age of nine than the younger children who usually know the characters.

If you have managed to sneak the original Pooh stories past an older child’s defenses and are looking for a more modern follow-up, or if you’d like a way to lead up to those classics, my recommendation is the similarly funny Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic (written by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky).  Its self-contained but interconnected stories (with titles like “The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine” and “The Serious Problem of Plastic-ness”) and sweet illustrations make it a perfect read-aloud, either for a class or a family at bedtime.

There are a few parallels between the two books that make me wonder if Jenkins was specifically thinking of the Pooh stories.  In one story Lumphy the buffalo loses “something important” from his body in a way that would be familiar to Eeyore.  In another chapter, the characters search for a perfect birthday present, much like Pooh’s gift to Eeyore of a Useful Pot to Put Things In (and Piglet’s thoughtful Thing to Put in a Useful Pot).  There are some very Milne-like “hums” throughout the story that brought to mind both the Pooh stories and Milne’s poetry.  Both authors also share a love of language (see for example StingRay’s explanation of the term for whispering suggestions in someone’s ear: “Oooooh!  Submarine messages! … Why didn’t I think of them before?”).

More than those specific parallels, I was struck in these stories by a similar affection for the characters.  Both of these books are about the secret lives of toys, but they’re also about people children know or will come to know.  Almost everyone has an Eeyore or an Owl in their lives, and we can all hope for affection from a friend like Piglet.  In much the same way, the characters in Toys Go Out are vulnerable and appealing in a way that makes them instantly connectable for children.  StingRay’s need to know everything (and willingness to make up facts when she doesn’t), Lumphy’s tough gruffness, and Plastic’s general bounciness are all characteristics that children can usually recognize in others … or in themselves.

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwi...

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwise from bottom left: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re looking for books to start (or hopefully continue) a family read-aloud routine, I can’t make a better recommendation than these two.  They’re cozy, connectable, and very, very funny.  And if you’re an adult fan of Winnie the Pooh, I also recommend you acquaint yourself with this new generation of literary friends.  Happy reading!

For more background about these two books, their authors, and their illustrators, you might check out:

Emily Jenkins’ website, with information about her books, teacher resources, and a particularly lovely autobiographical essay

Paul O. Zelinsky’s website, featuring lots of information about this Caldecott-honored artist and his work

– There are a multitude of official and unofficial sites about Pooh Bear, but the site of Peter Dennis, connected to his audio books of Milne’s work, is particularly informative and well-constructed.

– Amazon.com’s biographical page about A.A. Milne also gives some background about the man and his work.

Netflix Meets the Children’s Shelf (or Why Big Brother Watching You Isn’t Always Such a Bad Thing)

I admit it: I just love it when I visit a website like Amazon or Netflix and up pops a window with special recommendations, “just for you.”  I know I should probably be a little creeped out or offended that they’re keeping tabs on me, but honestly, I’m just tickled by it.  I won’t say their algorithms are always accurate (I usually get a flood of particularly random “recommendations” right after buying gifts during the holidays), but occasionally I’ll discover something new and genuinely interesting.  Perhaps even more fascinating than the recommendations themselves is the science that goes into them.  What exactly is it about my interest in Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” that makes me more likely to enjoy “Upstairs, Downstairs”?

I sometimes find myself creating my own informal version of these “recommended for you” algorithms when I talk about books with children.  If you ask a child wandering aimlessly through the library what kind of book you can help them find, the answer will typically be “you know … a … good book.”  It’s more fruitful to start by narrowing down genres.  A picture book?  Nonfiction?  Fiction?  Do they want a book with talking animals?  A realistic fiction book?  How about a fantasy book?  But even with all those categories, the final key is often something like a Netflix-style rating: “Tell me about a book you just loved.  Maybe we can find something like it.”  Or, if you want to be more focused in your questioning: “When you say you want a funny book, do you mean funny like Judy Moody or funny like Captain Underpants?”  With the right keystone book, you can often find a recommendation that shares just enough qualities to hook in a reader.  (“You know, if you’re looking for something really silly and a little gross, with funny pictures like Captain Underpants, how about …”)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mind you, marketers try this kind of thing all the time with children’s books, but often with varying degrees of accuracy.  After the blockbuster success of A Series of Unfortunate Events there was a sudden flood of novels with dark, depressing stories about orphans with an Edward Gorey style cover.  In order for that kind of marketing to work, however, the connections between the old and new have to be more than skin-deep.

We can help children to make some of these connections themselves by starting to recognize ideas about genre, or pick up on elements of an author’s style that pulls them back again and again to that author.  Still, it never hurts to have a few “connected texts” in our back pockets as adults, ready to offer to wandering readers when needed.  As an adult, one of the great pleasures of continuing to explore new children’s books is finding ways that new texts connect back to a story from my childhood, or ways that a fan of a more recent novel can be led back through it to an older book.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be offering up some of my own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairings.  Coming up next week will be a true old favorite and a book I consider a new classic: I believe that fans of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne will just love Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins.  While you’re waiting to hear my pitch for this great combination, feel free to share your own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairs in the comments section.  Happy reading!