Friday, June 27, 2014

The Mysterious Schoolmaster by Karin Anckarsvard, illustrated by Paul Galdone, translated by Annabelle MacMillan

It's a mystery to me why small town adventures went out of style. This is a particular genre in my mind, and it involves a small town, a group of kids with remarkable freedom from parental interference (usually one or two are the main characters and inspire the rest of the gang), and they solve mysteries. It's an awesome genre and many of them are remarkably gender-neutral for the time they were written. I don't see why we couldn't add some more racially diverse kids and offer these to a whole new generation. I get a constant stream of kids asking for mysteries but it's really hard to find something that will satisfy their desire - most of the middle grade mysteries are too puzzle-based and either strive too hard for realism, or go the other way and fall into complete fantasy. Scholastic has updated some of their popular paperback series with great results - Ruth Chew is circulating like crazy in my library - and I would like to set forth a proposal to republish some of these other titles.

Specifically this one. I first encountered Karin Anckarsvard when I was looking for Swedish children's mysteries similar to Astrid Lindgren's Bill Bergson trilogy. Anckarsvard wrote a whole slew of small town adventure mysteries as well as several really good contemporary fiction novels that would be historical fiction today. This is my favorite of all her books and if you like these characters you can pick up on their lives in future adventures.

Michael and Cecilia have met before of course. After all, it's a small town - even if they do have 860 pupils in the school, a truly tremendous number. But Cecilia is busy helping at home; in fact, they have a new baby which explains why she was carrying a package of diapers, which she left at school and then she saw a new teacher doing something very odd. Michael seemed a handy person to tell and before they know it they're friends and investigating the mystery. There's danger, excitement, and lots of trouble, especially with oblivious adult authorities who don't want to listen to the kids' warnings. In the end, after several dangerous adventures, Cecilia and Michael save the day and both win awards at school as well as becoming firm friends.

What makes Karin Anckarsvard (and similar mysteries like Bill Bergson) so interesting, and a little different from the usual small town adventures, is the vein of realism that runs through them. I'm not talking about what passes for "realistic mysteries" in contemporary literature, which usually focus more on family issues and characters. Cecilia and Michael are in real, frightening danger. They're scared and do silly things but in the end they persevere because they know something's wrong and nobody will listen to them. The principal's speech at the end praises their courage and imagination, but Michael and Cecilia themselves are more concerned with putting their frightening adventures behind them and talking about the reconvening the dance club next semester. It's this attitude, that both the children know these aren't normal adventures or things that kids should be dealing with, that makes these stories both exciting and realistic. The author acknowledges that this is a kind of adventure-fantasy, but then puts realistic characters into the adventure that kids can relate to and imagine what it would be like to have a similar adventure.

Verdict: This is written in the 50s, so it's not surprising that the villains are spies and there are plenty of period details, like the dance club and so on. Cecilia is initially described as shy and easily frightened, but when it matters she seizes her courage in both hands and saves Michael on several occasions. She's never relegated to sidekick status and from the beginning she and Michael are equal partners. It's historical fiction now, but the characters are fresh and real, the mystery every bit as exciting and dangerous, and the details as lifelike and funny as when it was first written. Sadly, I don't think this author is well-known enough to bring her books back into print, but I can hope!

TX 1345; Originally published 1955, this edition published 1968 by Scholastic; From my personal library


Ms. Yingling said...

Summer at Forsaken Lake by Beil had this sort of feel to it. The new Ruth Chew books do well, but upon rereading, they really kind of creep me out. Let's visit new neighbors and eat their candy! NOOOOO!

Jennifer said...

Ha! I admit I was never a big Ruth Chew fan, but lots of other people are and the kids are really into them this summer. I just lament the passing of the classic kids' mystery.

CLM said...

I loved Anckarsvard's books and this was my favorite! I was happy when Cecilia and Michael were married in a later book.