October 22, 2012

What Happened in July

by Margaret J. McMaster
Mansbridge Dunn Publishers
57 pp.
Ages 7-9

What Happened in July, the fourth book in Margaret J. McMaster's Babysitter Out of Control! early reader series, has our young narrator, Stewart, again in the care of his babysitter, the elderly Mrs. Chairbottom, while his detective parents are working.

Behind one of the kitchen cupboards which Mrs. Chairbottom is having replaced, they find an old newspaper from July 1932. The cover page of the newspaper has four different words circled in red with several combinations of numbers and letters written beside them.  With the help of Mrs. Chairbottom's friend, Colonel Alfred Peabody, they discover the secret code that ultimately leads them to an old mystery of stolen diamonds.

Reminiscent of the Horrible Harry (by Suzy Kline) and Nate the Great (by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat) series of mysteries for young readers, What Happened in July presents a simple mystery that gives readers a chance to try out some new skills, here code-breaking.  While the nature of early readers generally precludes multi-layered plotting and characterizations, What Happened in July provides more than just a linear mystery plot i.e., discovering a mystery and directly finding the solution.  Because of the addition of the code-breaking and help needed to discover information not readily accessible, young readers will experience the more complicated plotting of a true mystery.

Books for early readers are at a severe disadvantage compared to picture books, longer fiction and nonfiction.  While picture books can use incredible graphics to support and add meaning to the sparse text, as can non-fiction, and middle-grade and YA literature has the opportunity and word count to extend all elements of the story to enhance its telling, early readers must rely on simple plots and easy vocabulary, perhaps with the occasional graphic, to convey a complete story.  For that reason, I feel that reading the first three books in the series would have enhanced my understanding of the characters' relationships and the history of Mrs. Chairbottom's babysitting of Stewart.  It must be difficult for authors such as Margaret J. McMaster to restrain themselves from elaborating on their plots and setting and characters to ensure that they don't lose their readership.  And too much of anything in an early chapter book is sure to turn off a new reader.  So, kudos to those authors such as Margaret J. McMaster who accept the challenge of penning a story for the youngest readers and can still tell a good solid story.

You can check out Margaret J. McMaster's blog here http://margaretmcmaster.blogspot.ca/ to see the other volumes in her Babysitter Out of Control series and her other children's book, Carried Away on Licorice Days (Mansbridge Dunn, 2008).

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