August 23, 2007

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Max & Maddy and the Bursting Balloons Mystery and Max & Maddy and the Chocolate Money Mystery, by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan (Bloomsbury USA, 2007, 70 and 72 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

Alexander McCall Smith, the Scottish professor who writes, by the dozen, bestselling mysteries set in Botswana (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency etc.) and Scotland (The Sunday Philosophy Club etc.), also writes books for kids. The Akimbo series follows a young boy in Africa; his Harriet Bean series features a girl whose quirky aunts help her solve mysteries.

Tthe Max & Maddy series follows the successful pattern of having a boy and a girl (usually siblings or cousins) team up to solve problems despite occasional differences (think Maya and Miguel on PBS, Dora and Diego on Nickelodeon, and Jack and Annie of The Magic Tree House books). Max and Maddy are brother and sister. They get detective gigs because they are very good at Clue.

Smith’s kids’ books are in the same vein as his adult novels: simple, light fare with tidy resolutions. Occasional illustrations brighten the pages. Cleverly, Smith has refrained from specifying an age for his protagonists, keeping them accessible to all (as does the dual-protagonist tactic).

My seven-year-old apprentice liked the Max & Maddy books because their bad guy gets what’s coming to him (falling into a pile of pig poop at one point). As for the suspense: “I figured out one of them a little bit ahead of time but it was just the right amount of ’head of time that it was really really good.”

They’re meant to be read sequentially but it doesn’t matter much. In Bursting Balloons the duo participates in a hot-air balloon race to figure out which contestant is sabotaging the game. In The Chocolate Money Mystery they join St. Bernards chasing bad guys through the Swiss Alps, and Max has to jump from a cable car despite his fear of heights. These short chapter books reside on the bridge between “read it to me” and “I’ll read it myself,” adapting well to either duty. B+Lisa Parsons