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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The Case of the Missing Nursery Rhymes

detectiveblue

Detective Blue (cover image from Amazon.com)

I usually have a pretty good read (ha ha) on the types of books that my third graders will enjoy, but occasionally a book I expect to get a standing ovation gets more of a polite golf-clap when I present it to the class.  When I read Detective Blue (written by Steve Metzger, illustrations by Tedd Arnold) in the bookstore, I personally fell in love.  The book is a riff on noir detective stories using characters from nursery rhymes.  Detective Blue (formerly known as “Little Boy”) has to interview a variety of classic characters in his effort to solve The Case of Missing Miss Muffet.  Throughout the story and in the background of the illustrations the author and illustrator have tucked references to 24 nursery rhymes.  Aside from a connection to one of my favorite series for adults (more on that later), I loved the graphic novel look of the book, the illustrations by Tedd Arnold (illustrator of the Fly Guy series), and the fractured fairy tale feel of the book.

But when I gave the book its first read aloud last year, the reaction was a bit more lukewarm than I expected.  The kids weren’t bored … but they weren’t in love either.  Unlike the other fractured fairy tale books in the “Books We’ve Read” bucket, this didn’t get very many rereadings.  At the time, I decided the class just wasn’t familiar enough with hard-boiled detective traditions.  After all, it’s hard to see the humor in dialogue like, “Forget the plum, Horner!  Just give me the facts!” when you’re too young to have encountered Sam Spade and Nero Wolfe.

With this year’s rereading, however, I found hints of another, more distressing problem.  I suspect … nursery rhyme illiteracy.

My first hint came with the cover.  I showed the class the title, in which the word “Little Boy” has been crossed out and replaced with “Detective” (above a picture of Detective Blue in a trench coat and fedora).

Me: Who has an idea about what nursery rhyme the title character might come from?

Third Graders: (blank stares)

Hmmm.  Maybe a few more clues would help.  I started reading.  The book begins with Detective Blue in his office addressing the reader: “My name is Blue – Detective Blue.  You might know me as Little Boy Blue.  At one time I blew a horn and looked after cows and sheep.  That’s in the past!”

Me: (pointing to the signed photo from the cows and sheep and the horn on his desk) So our narrator is Little Boy Blue!  You know … Little Boy Blue, come blow your …

Third Graders: (more blank stares)

Me: … horn.  The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the …

Third Graders: (confused looks)

Me: … corn.

Oh, dear.

Me at four months old, desperately grasping my favorite book

Me at four months old, desperately grasping my favorite book

Now, the kids did recognize most of the “blockbuster” characters.  They knew Humpty Dumpty and Miss Muffet.  They seemed vaguely familiar with Mary’s little lamb (though they didn’t seem to know the second verse … there was general confusion about why the lamb was caught sneaking into the school building), and they knew the Muffin Man (thanks, Shrek!).  And I wouldn’t necessarily have expected them to identify some of the more obscure characters (like the cat walking by with a suitcase labeled “I’ve been to London”).  But Old King Cole?  Jack Be Nimble?  Hot Cross Buns?  (“Oh, like the recorder song?  Why is that in this book?”)  Sigh.

I was frankly a little horrified by this development.  As you can see, I’ve been a nursery rhyme fan from way back, even at four months old.  (Witness my death grip on my very favorite nursery rhyme book in this photo.)  I don’t think the problem for my third graders is a lack of early reading … in fact, I suspect the problem might be the reverse.  There are so many, many options open to parents in the board book world now that it’s easy to see how nursery rhymes could be pushed out.  I could probably identify a few titles that most of my students would remember from their toddler days: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Guess How Much I Love You, Good Night Moon.  All that early literacy pays off so well – are kids really missing anything if they miss out on the traditional nursery rhymes?

Well … yes.  I think they are.  I think there’s something important in the shared culture of nursery rhymes, something like a childhood version of mythology.  There’s the inherent pleasure of the rhymes and the language, but there’s also pleasure in the way characters become universal.  Books can be parodied (like Goodnight, iPad), but only shared characters can appear in multiple versions, retellings, and reimaginings.

The Big Over Easy (cover image from Wikipedia)

The Big Over Easy (cover image from Wikipedia)

In fact, the adult series of books that drew me to Detective Blue is based on that particular pleasure in reencountering familiar characters with a new twist.  The Nursery Crime series is by the fantastically imaginative Jasper Fforde (who has one of the most vital and creative author websites I’ve seen).  The first two books, The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear, depend on a melding of genres that draws on readers’ familiarity with fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and hard-boiled detective stories.  I think we’re robbing children of something if we deny them the chance to know (and then get to know again) those characters and genres.

It’s probably a little late to educate my third graders about nursery rhymes – I imagine there might be an outcry if I tried to pull out Mother Goose for read aloud – but it’s not too late for others!  My recommendation?  Buy nursery rhymes for your toddlers and toddlers you know.  Include nursery rhymes in the board books you bring to the next baby shower you attend.  Expose kids to these characters early … and set them on the path to a whole lifetime of fractured nursery rhyme pleasure.

Captivated by nursery rhymes - this could be your child!

Captivated by nursery rhymes – this could be your child!

The Dragonling Series: Growing Fantasy Fans

Dragonling cover via Amazon

The Dragonling (Cover via Amazon)

To me as a reader and a teacher, it seems obvious that a person’s childhood reading shapes their sense of self as an adult reader … in fact, that connection was one reason I started writing this blog.  I believe that, if you’re lucky, you find some touchstone books in your childhood that stay with you throughout your reading life, specific stories and characters that become part of your identity.  But I think that childhood reading can shape you in other ways as well.  The books you read as a child can help to set your expectations for books and for genres.  I imagine those streams of childhood books cutting a riverbank for each genre, training your mind in what to expect from a mystery, a fairy tale, a piece of historical fiction.  A well-worn path could, I think, make it easier for an older reader to slip easily into more sophisticated examples of a genre they learned as a child.

Which brings me to fantasy.

Magic, wizards, fairies, and spells are all very common features of children’s books, and those elements seem to point the way toward an adulthood of quality fantasy reading.  However, this fall I discovered a book that captured so many elements of classic genre fantasy that it seemed to quality as a set of training wheels for a future of Tolkien and McCaffrey.  I present it here as a good starting place if you’d like to set your children on a path toward speaking Elvish (or at least appreciating it).

The book is called The Dragonling, and it is part of a series of six books by Jackie French Koller.  She describes the books and her process of writing them on her website.  As I read The Dragonling with one of my book groups this fall, I found myself becoming more and more tickled by the ways in which it fit so neatly into expectations for the fantasy genre, on so many different levels.

1. The Practical Level.  Honestly, this book just sounds like a fantasy.  It’s set in a village that is both vaguely medieval and somehow timeless: thatched roofs, men dressed in tunics and knee breeches, lots of bow-and-arrow hunting.  The characters have names like Darek and Clep and Pola.  There are dragons, carefully classified into different species, as well as other familiar-sounding but fantastical creatures and plants, like glibbets and barliberries.  There are also specific rules of this fantasy world: a dragonhunt is a rite of passage for young men; the killer of the dragon is named the “marksman” and has the honor of wearing the dragon’s claw around his neck.  All of this essentially boils down to “world building” in the best tradition of great fantasy books.  It’s world building that is simple enough for third graders to grasp, but it’s training them in that unique combination required of readers of fantasy: suspending disbelief while also following the strict, author-established rules of a world.

2. The Character Level. It will surprise no one who is a fan of adult fantasy that this story centers on a young man who makes a connection with a creature from outside his own world and has to make a series of Right Decisions, many of which involve going against his family and his traditions.  When Darek’s brother brings back the body of Great Blue dragon from a dragonhunt, Darek discovers a baby in the mother dragon’s pouch.  He names the tiny dragon Zantor and sets out on a quest to bring it back to its home in the Valley of the Dragons.  Along the way he learns to question many of the things he had been taught about dragons and forms a friendship with the little dragon.  This type of solitary hero’s quest may seem familiar … but that’s because it’s so effective.

3. The Thematic Level. To me, one of the key elements of a great fantasy book is its ability to speak to Big Ideas, which can often be approached more directly because the setting and characters are comfortably removed from our world.  The Dragonling delivers on those Big Ideas, and manages to do so in a third-grade friendly way.  When I read the book, I personally focused on some pacifist ideas: by the end of the novel, Darek and other members of his community start to take a stand against the idea that killing others is a way for boys to prove themselves as men.  Interestingly, when I asked the students what they thought the lesson of the story might be, they focused instead on big social ideas.  Over the course of the story, Darek learns that dragons are peaceful plant-eaters instead of the dangerous hunters he’s always been told they are.  One of the students pointed out that part of the story and said she thought it was meant to teach “not to listen to what other people say about someone, but to find out for yourself what they’re like.”  Pretty big ideas from a third-grade level story, but completely accessible for these readers.

Perhaps one of the most fantasy-like elements of this fantasy novel was the reaction of the kids who read it.  I read this with a group of five (three girls and two boys) and every one of them responded with almost obsessive love for this book.  We were reading an edition that had the first three books in the series, and I had originally planned to just read the first one.  When I suggested that we might not read the second (A Dragon in the Family), the group practically mutinied.  They were devastated to learn that we wouldn’t be reading the third book, Dragon Quest (my perfectly reasonable argument that we were going on Christmas break and therefore wouldn’t be IN a book group falling on deaf ears) and all begged to be allowed to read the third book on their own.  Honestly, if there were a Comic Con equivalent for Dragonling books, I think I would have had five potential visitors ready to go.

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

As I get this blog up and running again, I’m going to continue to look for the books that can set young readers on track for a lifetime of good genre reading … and retrace the books that set me in those paths.  If you’re in the process of growing a young fantasy reader, this series is a great place to start.

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.