Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes, written by Lauren Child, 383 pp, RL 4

I know you know who Lauren Child is, even if you think you don't. Child is the creator of Charlie & Lola, stars of picture books and, as of 2005, television. Her distinctive illustration style - bright colors, collage patterns and funny characters who look a bit like they were drawn by a child, comes through in her writing style as well. Before I launch into my review of Child's newest book, Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes, I need to tell you a bit about Ruby's origins. However, Child's new series can be read on it's own without any background knowledge, and enjoyed thoroughly. It's just a bit more thrilling if you know something about Clarice Bean (click for my review) first. Clarice is the star of three chapter books,  written at a third grade reading level, and three picture books. What sets Clarice at the top of the class when it comes to chapter books with precocious girl narrators is her abiding love of the  Ruby Redfort books (excerpts of which appear throughout the Clarice Bean books) that she and her best friend Betty Moody read over and over. Ruby is a super-smart, girl spy with a long list of rules and some snappy sayings that Clarice and Betty love to repeat. I was lucky enough to receive a dossier of information regarding all parties concerned with the new Ruby Redfort books and learned that Patricia F Maplin Stacey was once a Hollywood star, her most famous movie being the 1964 cult favorite When Dawn Becomes Night. In 1970 Stacey retired from Hollywood and retreated to a small apartment in New York City where she began writing the Ruby Redfort spy series,  the first of which is titled, There Was a Girl Named Ruby. She went on to write six more books about the girl spy which were bestsellers and the book series was "made into one of the longest-running and most successful children's TV series of all time." Now Child has taken over the series and, with the help of Professor Marcus du Sautoy, OBE who will write the codes that Ruby uses and tries to break throughout the books.

Before I say much more about Ruby and her adventures in this first book in a projected series of six, I need to comment on the absolute dearth of books for middle grade readers that feature girls who are spies, or even detectives, as the main character. After Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy and Enola Holmes, I come up with a blank. While a book with a super smart code breaking girl as the main character alone would go far to filling some gaps in parity, the fact that Ruby Redfort becomes a girl spy just makes these books all the better and especially welcome. Thank you, Lauren Child, for going a long way to bringing smart, adventurous girls to the shelves!

When we first meet Ruby in Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes, we learn that, at the age of seven, she won the junior code-cracker championships, "solving the famous Eisenhauser conundrum in just seventeen days and forty-seven minutes." The next year, Ruby stumped and stunned the judges with a code that they could not break. Forced to send it on to Harvard, professors there took two weeks to solve it, resulting in an offer for Ruby to become a student at the university the following semester. At the age of eight, Ruby said she had no interest in becoming "some kind of geek freak." And thus, she continued on her life with socialite parents Brant and Sabina, who are happily oblivious to the secret life their daughter leads and is a middle school student in 1970s America, which when the books are set.

There are so many wonderful details packed into Ruby in Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes that I am tempted to list them all alphabetically, but I will try to contain myself to this paragraph before I lay out the plot. Ruby and her best friend Clancy Crew, son of an ambassador, superb secret keeper and and loyal to the end, live in the town of Twinford. As an adult readers, aspects of the story that screamed "1970s" to me were things like the way Ruby and the other characters talked, something along the lines of Jodie Foster circa Candleshoe and Bugsy Malone, if you are old enough to know those movies. After answering her phone (which always involves a joke along the lines of, "Barndy's Wig Salon. Hair today, gone tomorrow") Ruby says, "So Clance, what gives?" And the phones! More indicators of a bygone era. Ruby has a collection of phones shaped like various things (hamburgers, donut, cartoon squirrel in a tuxedo, etc) and she has them all over her house, even her bathroom. Then, there is television, which Ruby loves. She and her housekeeper, Mrs Digby, have a roster of crime shows that they never miss, their favorite being Crazy Cops, and Tuesday is Crime Night. Finally, there is Ruby's preferred uniform of Yellow Strip sneakers and an array of t-shirts with slightly subversive sayings like some days stink, bored beyond belief, bozo, let them eat cake and help is at hand. I am old enough to remember the dawn of the t-shirt with words printed on it, specifically the store in the mall where you could have them customize shirts with iron-on letters in various fonts, so I was especially tickled by this detail. Finally, Ruby has a long list of rules which include observations like, PEOPLE OFTEN MISS THE DOWNRIGHT OBVIOUS {rule 18} and YOU CAN MISS A LOT IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE {rule 52} and SAY NOTHING {rule 4}.

At the start of Ruby in Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes, Sabina and Brant Redfort have returned from a trip to Switzerland with quite a story to tell. It seems a man in the airport bar caused Mrs Redfort to spill a martini on her Oscar Birdet designer jacket after bumping into her. Ruby tunes her parents and their enthusiasms out, as usual, but begins to suspect there is more to their story when, the very next day, they return to a totally empty house. All of the belongings and their beloved housekeeper have vanished! Fortunately, Child gives us some very funny glimpses into the dilemma that Mrs Digby finds herself in after being stolen while having a soak in Mrs Redfort's isolation tank. Ruby's wheels begin to spin, especially when, the very next day, a stunningly handsome butler named Hitch arrives to run the Redfort household in Mrs Digby's absence, bringing his own toaster with him. This toaster is the source of some of the funniest lines in the book, as it is actually a means of communicating top secret messages between Hitch and Spectrum, the secret spy organization he works for. My favorite of these lines being, "they had to climb along the side of the Twinford Bridge. She now understood why the toast had recommended sneakers." A series of clues and codes leads Ruby to Spectrum Headquarters where she is given the chance to help them crack a code after their main codebreaker dies while mountain climbing. However, Ruby's employment by Spectrum is strictly desk job only and she even has an agent to babysit her. Despite this, Ruby finds herself unintentionally walking off with some spy gear and plunging headfirst into the mystery that Agent Lopez was on the verge of solving. Turns out this unbreakable code pertains to a group of professional thieves making plans to steal the Jade Buddha, a newly discovered ancient artifact that is worth millions and just might be able to bestow wisdom on the one person who looks into its eyes at midnight. The Redforts are responsible for planning the visit of the Jade Buddha and the museum gala and are irrevocably, if unknowingly, tied up in the intrigue.

Codes, clues and hidden messages are scattered throughout Ruby in Ruby Redfort: Look into My Eyes, which is where Marcus du Satoy comes in. These were beyond me, but I am sure if I had more time I would give them a go. The cast of villains that Child introduces into the story are more cartoonish than creepy, although Count Von Viscount, a melodramatic madman prone to "dangling you over a bubbling volcano rather than just dropping you in" and other Dr Evil-type behavior, is a loose cannon. This first book in the Ruby Redfort series introduces us to the characters and scenarios and was cover-to-cover fun to read. I can't wait to read about the next adventure Ruby and Clancy take on and just hope I don't have to wait a whole year for it!

Check out this short, very James Bond-ish, clever book trailer!

Ruby Redfort books 2 & 3!

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