Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Wunderkinds.

The child is father of the man, at least that's what Wordsworth wrote (and wasn't he a loquacious so-&-so?) which means the things we love as kids often influence our tastes as adults.  I am (unfortunately) old enough now to acknowledge the truth in this observation, but I wonder if writers deliberately trade on this idea. After all, how do you create adult readers who'll love Fantasy/Science Fiction?  Do you wait until they're old enough to vote and then give them a copy of Dune?  No, you introduce them to the genre while they're young, with kid's stories written by great SF authors like Heinlein  and LeGuin.

But creating under-age Mystery readers is a slightly more difficult proposition.  After all, Mysteries almost always involve Violent Crime, and we don't want the Little Darlings to have nightmares.  (Well, we may, but we won't sell as many books if they do.)  So how do you create the next generation of Nero Wolfe and Alex Cross fans? By giving them mysteries with juvenile detectives, of course!
When I was first learning to read, there were three fictional superstars of kid-lit whodunits.  Well, it was actually seven characters but three detective teams, all of which ran their own brand: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and (of course) the Hardy Boys. On the page, they were the Wunderkinds.

On one level, they all looked like ordinary kids with affluent, middle-class lives. Kids that most adults overlook. But look at them again, and you'll see that Nancy Drew is independent and talented, Frank and Joe Hardy never lose their nerve, and as for the Bobbsey Twins, well only Freddie shows a mischevious streak.  Nan and Bert are noble mini-adults. To me, that's a flaw since no hero should be too good to identify with but the subtext was clear: in some circumstances, if kids do the right things, they can rule.  They're as smart and brave as the adults and, if they match wits with any bad guy or bully, they can come out on top, usually without too much help from a parent.  A sentiment guaranteed to make most kids cheer.

A whole raft of fictional juvenile detectives have followed these prototypes from Encyclopedia Brown through Flavia deLuce and the newer heroes have more of a real-life kid's feelings and  issues.  But the essence of the juvenile detective hasn't changed: youth's zeal and integrity, mixed with a world-class intelligence and the emotional maturity of an adult whenever the chips are down.  Come to think of it, that's winning combination at any age.