Check It Out

Courier & Press Article by Carol Cariens
Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mystery Stories Scare Even Better in the Fall

October has always seemed the perfect time to celebrate the wide appeal of mystery fiction. Spooky, eerie, shadowy October. Perfect. Here are three mystery series for kids that are good examples of the genre plus they have the added bonus of taking place in the same setting: school. Oooooo.

Author Andrew Clements never disappoints and his new series is no exception. "Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School" has it all: mystery, adventure, riddles, conundrums, history, good vs. evil, and historic preservation vs. economic development. In this six-book series beginning with "We the Children" (followed by "Fear Itself") we meet Benjamin Pratt, just your average, ordinary sixth-grader, who becomes the champion to save the historic Captain Duncan Oakes School. This venerable institution, founded by the good Captain himself, sits on prime oceanfront real estate in the small town of Edgeport. And that's the problem. Given the tough economic times Edgeport's town leaders are ecstatic when a conglomerate makes an offer for the land to construct a sprawling amusement park. Result: wrecking ball for the school. Not if Ben and his good friend, Jill, can help it, though. When an old, gold coin with the inscription: "First and always, my School belongs to the children: DEFEND IT, Duncan Oakes 1783", is passed on to Ben by the school's dying custodian, Ben's fate becomes linked to the school, no matter what the outcome. Follow Ben and Jill as they discover clues in the old school hidden by the Captain that will help them save their beloved halls of learning. Can they do it? Time's running out. By the end of book two, there were only twenty-four days left before demolition. As for me, I can't wait until January 3, 2012: that's the publication date of book three, "The Whites of Their Eyes".

Changing schools can be stressful enough for many students but for sixth-grader Spencer Zumbro it was downright hazardous! The only uber-cleannik in a family of lovable slobs, Spencer, who loathes, hates, and despises anything remotely resembling dirt or germs, unwittingly becomes a ploy between his school's custodial engineers (aka janitors) and the BEM. And what is the BEM? Funny you should ask, Spencer didn't know either-but he surely found out-boy, did he find out! The BEM (Bureau of Educational Maintenance) "oversees the maintenance of schools across the U.S.", at least accordingly to author Tyler Whitesides, in the first book of his new series called appropriately enough, Janitors. I know we've all been told not to judge a book by its cover but the dust jacket for Janitors telegraphs all the spine-tingling excitement just waiting inside. In addition, Brandon Dorman's great sketches introduce us to the grimes, the filth, the Toxites, and the rubbishes that troll the halls of Welcher Elementary School. With the help of the BEM and Welcher's own janitors, Spencer and his somewhat reluctant accomplice, Daisy Gates (probably the most gullible child on the face of the earth) do battle with these pesky varmints and, with a nod towards Harry Potter's broom-riding skills, learn that even mops can fly. Don't be too quick to pick out the "bad guys" as people are not what they seem to be. And, oh yes, one of the grime-fighters will not make it to the sequel of Janitors, due out next year.

If you are looking for a mystery series that's just a little bit different, look no farther than the "The Lunch Lady". No matter what crime is on the menu or what school function is about to be thwarted, shouting her mantra, "Serving Justice! And Serving Lunch!" the Lunch Lady and her intrepid sous-chef, Betty, are a dynamic duo, bar (cookie) none. Cyborg substitute teachers, evil librarians (gasp!), summer camp swamp monsters, and a school buszilla have been no match for LL. With recycled kitchen utensils repurposed into crime-stopping tools by Betty in the cafeteria's secret basement (even James Bond's "Q" would drool over them!) the Lunch Lady has starred in six books so far (look for number seven in 2012). Using a lemon meringue yellow and mystery meat gray palette this graphic novel series by comics aficionado Jarrett J. Krosoczka is just plain fun with enough thrills and chills thrown in to make the cafeteria's lime jell-o cubes shiver and shake even more.