Two very different series of mystery / adventure themed novels are delighting my 7-year-old bookworm at the moment - the classic and beloved-of-my-own-childhood Trixie Belden books, and Duncan Ball's Emily Eyefinger series.
The Trixie Belden books, for those unfamiliar, are a long-spanning series of Girl's Own Adventure-type mysteries, written between 1948 and 1986 by a series of publisher staff writers using the pseudonym Kathryn Kenny. The heroine of the stories is Trixie Belden herself, 13 years old at the start of the first novel and around 16 at the end of the last (although the references to ages get vaguer as the novels progress).
I have the first 12 novels in the 39-book series, saved from my own childhood, and my 7-year-old recently expressed a desire to read some more mystery books "that are a bit older than the Famous Five, Mummy." So I dug out the Trixies, and suggested that we have a go at them.
They have been a very palpable hit with both the 7-year-old and the 5-year-old. My younger girl isn't reading fluently yet but she loves to be read to, and is old enough to be getting right into the stories, plots, suspense and excitement of the Trixie books. We have developed a split system for the books, where A, my 7-year-old, is reading some of them by herself, but we are reading other selected ones aloud as our breakfast and dinnertime chapters. (I tend to peg reading to meals, and have since the kids were tiny; it works in our family, but I know it doesn't suit everyone).
I asked the girls what they found appealing about the Trixie books.
"I like all the people in them, especially Honey," mused the 7-year-old. (Honey Wheeler, also 13, is Trixie's best friend, and is also depicted as much more feminine, timid and gracious than the "tomboy" Trixie).
The 5-year-old snorted. "I like Trixie!" she countered. "She is much braver than Honey! Also, she doesn't like doing cleaning up either," she added with satisfaction.
"I like the mysteries, they are very exciting," said the 7-year-old.
"AND hard to guess!" agreed Miss 5.
For me, the things I like most about the Trixie Belden books, both when reading them as pre-teen many years ago and now reading them again, are the character of Trixie (who is an extremely appealing, and extremely imperfect, girl, who grumbles about chores and makes silly decisions and gets impatient and isn't good at everything) and also the way the books are situated firmly within their time and place. All the places Trixie and her friends visit are evocatively drawn, especially their home town of Sleepyside (in upstate New York).
The feeling and "vibe" of the books is entirely of their moment, too, which is why my favourite books in the series are 6 - 16 (the books written between 1961 and 1977). The books have a hopeful, positive aura that is not inappropriate for books written for older children, and books written in the loving 60s. I have just finished reading number 12, The Mystery of the Blinking Eye, to the girls, and one of the things we all enjoyed in that book was the depiction of the United Nations in New York. It was so idealistic and hopeful and yes, naive and US-centric, but so in step with that moment in history. The girls were fascinated to learn more about the UN, too - we made it a bit of a project, and my 7-year-old is writing up a report for school about it now.
The Trixie books aren't flawless, of course - like many books of their type and vintage, they are peopled exclusively by white, able-bodied characters, except for villains who are occasionally Latino - although the books do explore wealth and class in some interesting ways. Still, I do not see this as a barrier to enjoying these books for what they are - and, for instance, I would say they are on the whole less arrogant and essentialist on the subject of ethnicity and class than Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, and less annoyingly perfectionist than that other stalwart girl detetctive series, Nancy Drew. It is something that I try to be aware of, though, as we read these books, and not to minimise or vanish.
Another series that my 7-year-old has fallen deeply in love with is American-born Australian author Duncan Ball's Emily Eyefinger books. Written for a younger reading audience that the Trixie books, the Emily books feature a girl who was born with a third eye on the tip of her finger. This opens up the possibility of fun, mayhem, superpower-like interventions, and some self-doubt for the protagonist as she deals with being differently abled and bodied to her friends.
I asked my 7-year-old what was good about these books.
"They're funny," she replied, "and the stories are good. And I like Emily."
(It's fair to say that affection for the characters is a central theme in my girls' commitment to any series-based fiction).
"Also, it's interesting how people are always a little bit shocked by Emily's extra eye but then they work out that it's really OK," she added.
I've not read any of these books aloud, so my perspective is more limited than on the Trixies, but after hearing A's views, I picked up a few and flicked through them, and was quickly able to see what she meant. Ball's writing style is extremely engaging and his plotting is fast and clever, but what holds the stories together is that Emily is so likeable, and her difference is so cleverly explored. For books targeted at 6+ readers, I think this is a pretty fair effort!
Overall, then, I and my expert reviewers would highly recommend both these series of books. Great characters, smooth plotting, engaging style, and decent-ish mysteries to boot. We give both series 8.5 / 10.
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