First reviewed in 2009, Mac Barnett's fantastic quartet of Brixton Brothers books is an uncommon contemporary mystery that boys and girls will love. Steve Brixton, a fan of a Hardy Boys-type mystery series, The Bailey Brothers, finds himself embroiled in one case after another, turning to his literary heroes for help, often finding himself in deeper trouble...
I'm sorry. I am apologizing in advance for the length of this review. If you want to know about The Brixton Brother's and the Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity, scroll down a paragraph or so. Otherwise, stick around to find out everything I learned about Mac Barnett: Writer and Strongman for Hire, this new children's book author who has burst onto the kidlit scene with two picture books and a chapter book all in one year, in addition to the other amazing things he is doing. Basically, this is my review of Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday (in which I crammed in all sorts of related information into the book review) all over again. And, interestingly enough, all three of Mac's books out this year are illustrated by Adam Rex! But, before I say anything about the books, I would like to mention two really remarkable things going on in the world of kids, books and adults who are working to make the world a better place for both. Mac Barnett is the former Executive Director and current member of the Advisory Board of 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring center which is part of 826 National, the umbrella organization for the seven centers around the United States. Started by Dave Eggers in 2002, along with veteran teacher Ninive Calegeri, in San Francisco. The flagship location, 826 Valencia, has over 1,400 volunteers and served 6,370 students in 2008/09. For more information about this amazing organization and the people and passions behind it, as well as how to contribute your time or money, please read my post 826 National. In addition to his work with 826LA (housed behind a storefront advertising itself the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and boasting the tagline, "Whenever you are, we're already then,") Mac Barnett is also one of the one of the Guys With Books, a touring group of children's book lumiaries like Jon Scieszka, Children's Book Ambassador from 2008 to 2010, David Shannon and Adam Rex. These fellas recently spent a few weeks touring the country, visiting schools and bookstores and thoroughly entertaining the kids, and adults, based on video clips on the site, in attendance. I can't remember the last time I heard about authors and illustrators getting together to spread the good word about books and reading like these guys are doing.
For a brief review of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex's two picture books, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem and Guess Again!, scroll to the bottom of this review, because now it's time to move on to The Brixton Brothers! So, a few things went through my mind when I first caught wind of The Brixton Brother's and the Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity back in June of 2009. This could be another Whales on Stilts, MT Anderson's absurdist mash-up of Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and Goosebumps. Or, this could be another walk down Lemony Snicket Lane. The raving author quotes on the jacket from Jeff Kinney, Jon Scieszka, Dave Eggers, an author of books for adults who is kind of dipping his toe into the waters of children's literature with his novelization of the screenplay he cowrote with Spike Jonez for his movie Where the Wild Things Are, drew my attention to the admirable attempt to hook a few reluctant readers who might also be boys. After setting aside my preconceived notions, my general personal difficulties with mystery/suspense novels (see my review of Margaret Peterson Haddix's book on in her new The Missing series, Found) and my intense dislike of teen detective Nancy Drew, (despite having been a fan as a kid) based on re-reading The Mystery at Lilac Inn in as an adult, I cracked the book. And then I couldn't put it down.
For a really great review as well as some insight from an actual librarian who may or may not be part of the elite team of secret agent librarians mentioned in the book, check out what Betsy Bird over at fuse#8 has to say, including comments on the way Barnett has skillfully "managed to capture the feel of the old time boys’ adventure novel but has done so without sacrificing our modern logic and sensibilities." With the many genres and styles that seem to jump out from this book at first glance, Barnett juggles all of them while at the same time delivering a solid, compelling mystery to be solved. As Bird writes, "Barnett walks the line well." So what line is this, exactly? I'm actually not even completely sure that it bears mentioning. As an adult, I found The Brixton Brother's and the Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity laugh out loud funny, however there is also some subtle humor that a younger reader might not pick up on, just like in the Series of Unfortunate Events books. But, wether the reader gets all the references and jokes, whether the reader has ever read a single Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown book, at the bottom of it all, this is just a darned good mystery that plays out in a relatively believable way - with only a little of the willing suspension of disbelief required for almost all books with a kid detective required.
Which brings me to my first favorite thing about this book: Steve Brixton. The twelve year old hero of our story is a huge fan of Shawn and Kevin, The Bailey Brothers (read: Hardy Boys,) has read all of their books and owns a copy of The Bailey Brothers Detective Handbook which he keeps hidden under his mattress in a hollowed out copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. He is also in possession of his very own Bailey Brothers Genuine Detective's Investigation License, purchased the year before for $1.95 and twelve box tops. When Steve accidentally hands over this card instead of his library card while trying to check out An Illustrated History of American Quilting by JJ Beckely to use for a school report, he unknowingly sets off an alarm as well as a string of events that leads all adults involved (except for Rick, his mom's boyfriend, an obnoxious, egotistical cop) to assume that Steve really is a detective, thus taking him for a serious threat to their evil machinations. Above all else, I think that this is a truly genuine and unique plot device invented by Barnett. In addition to being funny, it allows the mystery to unfold in a pretty realistic, reasonable manner. Steve's devotion to the Bailey Brothers and their craft is also realistically incorporated in to the plot, as Steve is frequently given the chance to take their advice when he finds himself in dangerous situations. Unfortunately and humorously, most of what they suggest is so outdated and ridiculous that it does not help Steve one bit. The other brilliantly funny conceit employed here is the role of the librarians who are, "the most elite, best trained secret force in the United States of America. Probably the world... Every librarian is a highly trained agent. An expert in intelligence, counterintelligence, Boolean searching, and hand-to- hand combat." This twist makes for one of the funniest scenes in a book I have ever read, which, thankfully, is also one of the many black and white illustrations with a retro feel, superbly executed by Adam Rex. As the caption reads, (all the illustrations have captions - another great touch) "The bookmobile steamed and roared in deadly pursuit," and shows Steve being chased down by a big, whimsically painted bus that is being driven by a determined librarian/secret agent.
I could go on and on, regaling you with details from this book, but I'll leave the pleasure of discovery to you and your young readers. I will, however, share one last bit from the book and a story about the kernel from which it sprang. While tracking down a clue, Steve follows a lead to the dockside bar, the Red Herring. Steve follows some more advice from the Bailey Brothers and dons a disguise and adopts the "colorful slang criminals use to communicate." The caption for this illustration reads, "Yes! Steve thought. I look more like a sailor than anyone in this place!" I think that the beauty of this book is that Steve is a real kid and acts like one and thinks like one. He naively takes to heart what he reads in books and he goes out into the world following the example of fictional heroes, trying to act like them and get things done. The humor (and suspense) in the book comes from the adults who, despite the absurdity, take him seriously. Isn't that what every kid wants, to be taken seriously? Now, for the story. I recently learned that, during a discussion with Mac Barnett's friend (and literary agent) Steven Malk (who, as a crazy aside, is the son of the owners of a really fabulous - long shuttered - children's bookstore that I used to visit as often as possible) in which the two were bemoaning the lack of good mysteries for kids, they also shared their mutual love of Ellen Raskin's Newbery winner The Westing Game, a book that made a deep impression on me as a kid (and adult) as well. From this conversation grew the first in what I hope is a series of brilliant mysteries for young readers (also filling in the always empty space on the shelves where good books written at a third grade level would sit if there were enough to fill a whole shelf...)
My one regret is that I have not found a kid who has read this book so I can't get the opinions and insights that matter most. However, as I said at the beginning of this review, I really believe that Barnett is such a skilled writer that, whether kids get the jokes, the word play or the pokes at the Hardy Boys, they will connect with and appreciate the character of Steve and the mystery that he stumbles into. There is soon to be an interactive website of mystery to go with this book. You can check out The Brixton Brothers Detective Agency is now up and running and has some cool printouts and extra information about the books.
AND NOW A BRIEF DISCUSSION OF THE PICTURE BOOKS OF REX AND BARNETT
Now, onto those two brilliant picture books, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem and Guess Again! For a thoroughly entertaining interview with Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, as well as superb insight into their creative grey matter, don't miss their visit to the excellent website that is a love letter to kid's books and their creators, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Mac Barnett & Adam Rex reading their book Guess Again! As the caption of this picture on the Guys With Books blog reads, "Adam realized his lifelong dream of holding a chicken, and this chicken realized her lifelong dream of being held by Adam Rex."
Guess Again! is just sheer brilliance and humor on the part of Barnett and Rex, who employs a slightly different illustrative style for this book. As the title suggests, a picture and a rhyme on each page suggest the answer to the question being asked. However, the picture and the answer on the following page neither match the rhyme or make sense. I know that this absurdist sense of humor is not for everyone, but I do believe that it will appeal to almost every child between the ages of 3 and 6. My 5 year old LOVES it to pieces. I brought it home from work and read it to him. Then we read it again to my husband, my son trying his best not to blurt out the answers. As we read, my 12 year old son and 16 year old daughter wandered into the room to hear what all the laughing was about and we read the book again to them. Everyone was laughing now. I gave it a test run at story time and, when I was done one of my regulars, a four year old, ran off with the book so his dad could read it to him. I don't want to give too much of the book away, so I will let you have just a taste of Barnett's pitch perfect rhymes. I really felt like I was reading a "real" kid's book from my childhood, his rhymes are so perky and playful...
"Who's on Captain Gluebeard's shoulder"
Gold is gold. That feather's golder.
Got a guess? It's time to share it.
It's Polly! She's the pirate's... MOTHER!!
I have to be completely honest. When I first read Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem when it came out in June of 2009, I was a bit underwhelmed with the story, although I was in awe of Adam Rex's illustrations, as usual. However, reading the interview at Seven Impossible Things, I learned that Barnett was interested in the consequences of having an enormous pet, unlike the classics Clifford the Big Red Dog and Danny and the Dinosaur in which the giant pets just make life more fun. Knowing this definitely deepened my appreciation of the book. Adam Rex is at his best with his painterly illustrations and there are some hilarious extras to look out for on the dust jacket.
And, in 2012, Barnett and Rex teamed up again for the very funny CHLOE AND THE LION.
And don't miss The Clock Without a Face, by a fella named Gus Twintig with artwork by Scott Telpin, Adam Rex and Anna Sheffield. Looks like it is a mystery-treasure hunt-picture book along the lines of the old book Masquerade by Kit Williams in which clues to the location of a golden rabbit pin were hidden throughout the illustrations and text in the book. This time around there will be 12 hand-made, emerald studded numbers buried across the United States. Readers must solve the mystery of the robberies at Ternky Tower in order to reveal the location of the jewels! Although all but the big, emerald 12 have been found, there is still a great, clue filled debate going on at the website for the book. Maybe you will be the one to find the prize?