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The Great Cake Mystery

by Alexander McCall Smith
73 pages / 2012

Precious Ramotswe must rank up there with some of the best-loved fictional detectives of all time, rubbing elbows with Hercules Poirot, Cadfael, and Father Brown. But as beloved as she is among adults, did you know that the star of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is also popular among children? McCall Smith has written a series of mysteries for children, featuring Precious when she was just eight years old.

For those who don’t already know, Precious lives in Botswana. In The Great Cake Mystery, Precious doesn’t think of herself as a detective yet, but her dad thinks she has it in her. So when a classmate is accused – without any proof – of eating someone else’s sandwich, she is upset. Precious, you see, is a kind girl who wants to help others. In this case helping means setting a trap to catch the real snack stealer.

SPOILER ALERT: Precious bakes a cake full of glue, covers the whole thing with icing, and places the cake outside the classroom “on the shelf where the children left their bags.” And not too long afterward the whole class hears the howling cries of the little thieves – monkeys! Precious has saved her friend from the mean accusations of their classmates. And, this being an old-fashioned sort of book, those classmates are truly sorry for what they thought and said.

This is a charming book, made all the more so by the folksy illustrations throughout, at least one on every two-page spread. McCall has written four other children’s mysteries starring the young Precious, with The Great Cake Mystery billed as “Precious Ramotswe’s very first case.” (In a confusing twist, that same billing is shared with at least one edition of another book in the series, Precious and the Monkeys. Whether The Great Cake Mystery is the first or not, it serves as a wonderful introduction to the young detective-to-be.)

CAUTION

We’ve read two other “young Precious” mysteries so far, and our daughters have loved both The Mystery of Meerkat Hill and The Mystery of the Missing Lion. I had a slightly different take. While I loved the former, I thought the latter was marred by an insertion at the end where they treat a lion as if he were a person. Precious ends up giving a brief lecture about how all lions should live free, including the missing tame lion they’d just recovered, and all the adults side with the child.

It is, on the one hand, no big deal – it is only a few pages in an otherwise enjoyable story. But it rankled me because this childish “feel-good-ism” is rampant in our culture, and I don’t think we need to be feeding any of it to our undiscerning children. The fact is, a tame lion would most likely die in the wild and a well-treated tame lion is not an oppressed lion. So what Precious proposes is both completely unnecessary and quite likely very harmful to the very lion she wants to help. We’re taught that good intentions are what really matters, but God says otherwise (Prov. 27:14) – if our well-meaning efforts cause damage, then we need to stop doing this well-meant damage!

CONCLUSION

My wife and I didn’t know about this brief lecture until we came across it in the audiobook with the kids listening along. It wasn’t objectionable enough to stop listening to the book we were already three-quarters of the way through, but if I was buying this series for a Christian school library I would get The Great Cake Mystery and The Mystery of Meerkat Hill, but give The Mystery of the Missing Lion a pass. There are two others in the series but we have yet to read (or listen to) them.
       
I should note that the audiobook versions are truly remarkable, with the reader delivering all sorts of wonderful accented voices.

Oh, and if your kids like this series, they might also enjoy a five-book series McCall Smith wrote about Akimbo, a boy who lives on a game reserve in Africa. I’ve reviewed those here.

All, in all, these are books that children even as young as 5 may really enjoy listening to, and 9 year-olds and up could really enjoy reading. Our whole family was thoroughly charmed.

This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com.


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Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective

by Donald J. Sobol 1963 / 88 pages Idaville is a small town with an impressive record - no one, absolutely no one, gets away with breaking the law. Most of the credit goes to Police Chief Brown, but he doesn't really want to take it. If the townsfolk were able to believe it, he'd let them know that the town's most puzzling crimes are solved, not at the police station, but at the Brown's dinner table, by his humble, brilliant ten-year-old son Leroy! In addition to helping out his dad, Leroy, known as Encyclopedia by his friends, also runs his very own detective agency, charging 25 cents a case, plus expenses. The Encyclopedia Brown series are great books that each include ten short mysteries for readers to solve right alongside our pint-sized detective. In this, the very first one, all the information needed to solve the mystery is included in the story, and the solution is found in the back. And though the mysteries are simple enough that boys and girls in the 9-11 range will be able to solve many of them, they are still subtle enough to present a challenge to adults (I had to peek at the back to figure out a couple of them...and this was my second time through). As you might guess from Encyclopedia's pay rate, this is an old book. It was first published back in 1963, so even though many more books have followed, the whole series has an old-fashioned feel and appeal to it. For example, Encyclopedia often has run-ins with the Tiger gang, but this is very much a 1960s sort of boys' gang - they run minor scams, try to trick kids out of their allowance, and might even start a tussle or two, but the very worst that would result is a black eye or fat lip. Cautions In a nod to the sort of feminism that says women are only equal to men if they can do anything men can do (rather than because we are all made in God's Image - Genesis 1:27), the author gives Encyclopedia a girl bodyguard. Sobol makes Sally Kimball tougher than any boy, able to beat up even Bugs Meany, the leader of the Tigers. The problem here, I explained to my girls, is that boys need to have it drilled into them that they can never hit girls, even at 10, because whether or not they're already stronger than girls, they soon will be. Thus girls have to be taught never to take shots at boys because if those boys are raised right they won't hit back, and it is just cheap to hit someone who can't fight back. While Kimball's unrealistic pugilistic prowess makes for some comedic moments at bully Bugs Meany's expense, thankfully her bodyguard role is only a focus in a few of the mysteries. The other caution is that, even as this series is sold in some Christian bookstores, God is absent. That's a minor concern if our kids are reading other books too. But if our kids get a steady diet of stories where God is treated as irrelevant to our daily lives, then that's teaching our little ones quite the lie. Conclusion I read these as a kid and loved the mini-challenge of each mystery. I was happy to see the series was still in print and that author Donald Sobol (1924-2012) had come up with a dozen more since I'd last read them. But I did notice that in one of the later ones – Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs – two of the ten mysteries required the reader to know something that wasn't included in the story (for example, "The case of the giant shark tooth" could only be solved if a reader knew that sharks constantly replace their teeth). So the earlier titles are just a bit better than the most recent - no outside knowledge needed. There are 28 official books in all: Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (1963) Encyclopedia Brown Strikes Again (1965) AKA Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues (1966) Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man (1967) Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (1968) Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace (1969) Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day (1970) Encyclopedia Brown Tracks Them Down (1971) Encyclopedia Brown Shows the Way (1972) Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case (1973) Encyclopedia Brown Lends a Hand (1974) AKA Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Exploding Plumbing and Other Mysteries Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dead Eagles (1975) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Midnight Visitor (1977) Encyclopedia Brown Carries On (1980) Encyclopedia Brown Sets the Pace (1981) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Mysterious Handprints (1985) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt (1988) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disgusting Sneakers (1990) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Two Spies (1995) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of Pablo's Nose (1996) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Sleeping Dog (1998) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Slippery Salamander (2000) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Jumping Frogs (2003) Encyclopedia Brown Cracks the Case (2007) Encyclopedia Brown, Super Sleuth (2009) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs (2010) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Carnival Crime (2011) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme (2012) If that isn't enough for your child, there are a few others titles associated with the Encylopedia Brown brand. One of the extra ones is a mystery/cookbook, with all the stories related to food, and each includes a recipe in the solution – it's called Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake (1982). Then there are a couple of true crime collections that I haven't been able to track down, but at least one of which my middle daughter has read and really liked: Encyclopedia Brown's Book Of Strange But True Crimes (1992), and Encyclopedia Brown's Book of Wacky Crimes (1984). All the main characters but one are boys, so these are clearly intended as boy books. That said, all my girls have enjoyed them as much as I did. They are great for anyone, boy or girl, who likes wrestling with problems, and while they are best suited for the preteen set, they'll offer a challenge to mom or dad too, which makes them good fun to read to your kids. And teens and parents who find these too easy can graduate on up to Donald Sobol's similar but more challenging Two Minute Mysteries series....


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