Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Review of The Niña, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure by Jill Santopolo

Meet Alec Flint, Super Sleuth, another contender for the young detective throne. Self-proclaimed sleuth Alec takes his work seriously, and like Encyclopedia Brown, his father is a police detective. Unlike Encyclopedia, Alec spends an entire book solving just one case.

I would love to tell you this is a promising series start, but unfortunately, it’s kind of a shaky debut. Alec seems like a nice kid, and the basic premise of two converging subplots—a missing Christopher Columbus museum exhibit and the disappearance of an art teacher from Alec’s school—is a winner. I also really liked the inclusion of a secret code introduced by Alec’s new friend and partner, Gina. And I got a kick out of the way the author describes Alec’s bouncy neighbor, Emily.

Two things didn’t work for me, though. One is the way the main characters don’t always sound like real kids thinking or talking, more like the way grown-ups imagine kids thinking or talking. It doesn’t help that in spots the dialogue just seems wooden. And in more than one instance, we’re given just a few bland lines, followed by more action or description. As a friend in one of my writing groups was pointing out, dialogue should move the story forward. It should also enrich your understanding of the characters.

Here’s a sample of Alec talking in the book, explaining his plans to Gina:

“Well,” said Alec Flint. “I think I already have an important mystery to solve. It’s about a missing Christopher Columbus exhibit at the museum. I’m helping my dad. But he’s not a super sleuth—he’s a police officer, which is sort of like a super sleuth but a little bit different.”
On a related note, the child characters often seem younger than they are supposed to be. One example that distracted me from the story was when Alec and Gina couldn’t reach the top of a copy machine without standing on a stool. Supposedly these kids are fourth graders, but when I saw that I went back and checked—were they actually second graders? Then I realized that they were talking like second graders part of the time, too. Even C.B. Canga’s illustrations make the young characters seem different ages, as they appear to be thirteen or so in several of the drawings.

The other key concern I have is the mystery, which turns out to lack credibility. Suffice it to say that the way the villain sets up the theft is absolutely outside the realm of possibility at an actual museum. (Ironically, the art heist in Elise Broach’s Masterpiece is more realistic, despite the beetles who act like little people!)

The Niña, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure is a pleasant book, even amusing in spots, but it made me uncomfortable because it condescends to kids, though I’m sure without meaning to. I hope that the author gets into the swing of things with her next offering, since Alec Flint has potential. But the boy needs to sound like a real fourth grader and address mysteries which are a bit more convincing.

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