Tuesday, January 5, 2010

So what do we think? 39 Clues book 2: One false note

Korman, Gordon. (2008). The 39 clues book 2: One false note ISBN-10: 0545060427 . PLease see criteria and full review at http://www.litland.com/

NOTE: This is a book families should discuss before choosing it for their reading list.

While their aunts, uncles and cousins continue to use lies, deceit and brutal force to find clues, Amy and Dan exercise classic virtues of courage, cunning/intelligence, and caring to win challenge after challenge. Or so we would hope after Book 1, but...

Of course, the book’s “voice” and style changed from book one as the authors changed hand. The style in this book is more common, perhaps less poetic and fewer profound moments stirring the reader’s emotions. Instead we are presented with regular denigration and poor judgment by the protaganists. Ch. 2 p. 16 Natalie makes insulting comments about Amy and Dan by telling her brother Ian “They always look like homeless people”. This demonstrates insensitivity to the truly disadvantaged. Couldn’t the bad guys insult the main characters without insulting us readers too? There must be a better way to represent Natalie and Ian as the spoiled brats they are.

Slang overdone such as “man’ as in “soggy cigars man” (ch. 4, p. 27) and “dissed” (p. 32) do not add to our vocabulary nor the story’s color. One expects the entertainer/star Jonah Wizard to use common slang, although his character’s communication is starkly different from Book 1 due to an overuse of it in Book 2. The character was more cunning in Book 1. After all, if historically the Cahill’s represented the most prominent people in the world, why the need to dummy-down these characters?

The word idiot is overused. All three main characters, who used to be the “good guys”, now are simply competitors lowering their standard of behaviour including constant criticism, cynicism and negativity. Example of Dan talking from ch. 5 p. 38: “If I was a stuck-up idiot with my head on a Pez dispenser, where would I hide the diary I jacked?”. Dan, you are already talking like the stuck-up idiot that you criticize!

Writing: The writing style of this book is typical. The sentence structures were weak and non-complex; it was not thought provoking. The vocabulary was basic as if written towards younger readers yet the violence was appropriate for older children age 9+. Transitions are ok but more crude and elementary. The constant negativity seems to stem from a lack of creativity in writing. Dan is constantly criticizing how dumpy each hotel room is (ch. 11 is one example); his “talk” is begging to be replaced with thought-provoking metaphors or good humor. This book seemed more like a poorly written fan fiction than a professional publication.

Moral character and demonstration of ethical behaviour: There isn’t any! In book two, our heroes are morally-challenged from its beginning. Pages 29-31 the kids deliberate with their au pair Nellie about stealing a vital document from cousin Jonah. The author might have had Amy, Dan and Nellie take the honest route of informing police to search Jonah’s room and find the stolen document. This would have resulted in him going to jail and being unable to compete against them for a while. Or, they may have decided to steal the document for the purpose of returning it to its library owners (note the absence of authority figures, as the children do not even ponder choices that include authorities in the solution). However, instead they choose to steal the document for themselves after feeling self-pity regarding their own underdog position in the competition. Their au pair, Nellie, agrees to participate with them in a moment that is not well articulated by the author. So their reasoning for stealing is that they supposedly have no other choice because of their disadvantages (as orphans, no adults or parents, no money, young age). Really?

Further along, pages 98-99, Nellie is asked to cause a diversion by asking the store clerk for directions (the legal and harmless choice). She exclaims this would stereotype her as a dumb female and be sexist (as if it mattered since the unflattering portrayal of her character has already been that of a dumb punk rocker with a nose ring). So she chooses to steal cd’s from the store clerk, damaging them as she runs away with them. The need of the author to use feminism as an excuse for immoral behavior in itself is an insult to females, as is eliminating the opportunity for Nellie to show her intelligence and abilities had she caught the clerk’s attention in an honorable manner. So in fear of being stereotyped as a dumb female, the character acts stereotypically like a dumb teenager. Go figure.

They have forgotten that their advantage was precisely those virtues that can only grow out of disadvantage: honesty, courage and caring. The lack of resources forced them in Book 1 to innovate and solve their problems, or get themselves out of a fix. That creative thinking made Book 1 stand out as exciting and unique amongst children’s lit. Knowing that Amy and Dan exhibited high moral character, we then knew they wouldn’t stoop so low as to behave like their counterparts, because in doing so they would lose their advantage! Instead, in Book 2, we are bombarded with negative attitude such as “That’s what cheating is for.” (p. 38).

The increased negativity and slang, writing that lacks engagement of the reader, and general negative or dull discourse between the characters dulls the reader’s mind. This book has less explanation and emphasis on the historical and geographical adventures that the characters undertake in their search for clues. Those details in Book 1 added to its richness; Book 2 is impoverished.

With that said, there is one moment carried forward from book one where Dan not only uses his visual memory but does so creatively: “Dan tried to visualize the tunnels as they appeared on a map” (ch. 10 p. 71). Amy finds moments to admire Dan. They recognize their strengths are completely different from one another (in comparison to Mozart and his sister whose strengths were similar).

Approach to the sacred: When they approach a building in Salzburg, they think it is a church. Dan criticizes by stating “Like Mozart wasn’t boring enough”. They have a run-in with a group of Benedictine monks (ch. 10 p. 79-80) that are said to be “cursing” Amy & Dan. The description of the monks behavior is as a scary group of men ganging up on them, handling them roughly. On page 80 Nellie refers to them as “deranged monks”. Whereas in book 1, the author used the ancient church as a place to marvel in history and intrigue, this author tackily treats it without sense of its historical import or respect to its uses (or his readers).

Final thoughts:

One has to read past the first 100 pages of the book for it to get interesting, and finally the Janus Hall adventure is worth the wait. However, even it is plagued with self-pity and negativity. Dan whines “What happened to all the loser Cahills? You know, the average Joes like us who never got rich and famous?” (p. 156). It takes until the end of the book for goodness to shine through. Dan shows concern for leaving the Kabras injured (p. 168); Amy reflects positively upon Dan, their shared victory as a team (p. 168); they realise the importance of their strength, their wit; and their parents smiled down upon them. But these are the only positive moments in the entire book, and we must wait until the end to experience it.
Book 1 smoothly wove into its discussion numerous details about places, things and people. Book 2’s discussion has less smooth detail and more negative self-talk or open criticism. These kids were extremely likable in Book 1 but not as much now. As Dan gains confidence that leads to cockiness (fortunately, a few books down the road in this series we see this mature a bit into wisdom and strong character). As for now, this book is very typical of the children’s lit market, as well as all children’s media (television, movies, computer games, Internet sites) in that it sensationalizes kids with questionable behaviour and poor decision making while minimizing or eliminating authority figures. Overall, it is OK if you don’t overdose on too much negative stuff like this, but not necessarily something to make an effort for. Since the collector cards are available separately from the book, it is possible to skip this book altogether in the series, and read #3 instead, without missing any details important to the storyline. Final word: this is a book families should discuss before choosing it for their reading list.

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