I have an engineering-type kid. My nine year old has loved all things engineering since he could stack blocks. Trying to feed his imagination with books that explore that interest, I asked friends for recommendations. Some wise friends recommended the Homer Price books by Robert McCloskey and we loved them. Homer is sweet, wholesome, and respectful of others. If he were a real kid, I would love for him to be my son’s best friend.
Other friends recommended The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald and we were unimpressed. In The Great Brain, my husband, son, and I all felt that the characters were a little bratty, a bit manipulative, and not entirely honest. I realize that many read these books in a different tone than we do. I respect that. For us, however, they were not a great fit and that made me sad because there are eight of them and they are written for my son’s reading level. We reviewed The Great Brain here.
My husband remembers loving Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol at this age. I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books by their many writers (just be careful to get the really old books with 25 chapters, not the rewrites with 20 chapters).
While looking for things like Homer Price, Twenty One Balloons, Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Good Old Archibald, I discovered The Mad Scientists’ Club books by Bertrand Brinley. Michael devoured The Mad Scientists’ Club books which Purple House Press has brought back into print.
While trying to understand The Mad Scientists’ Club better, I discovered the Alvin Fernald books by Popular Mechanics Editor in Chief, Clifford B. Hicks. Previously out of print, Purple House Press reissued four of the nine original Alvin books: The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, Alvin’s Secret Code, Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure, and Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day. Bethlehem Books has reissued Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader.
Hicks is a WWII veteran, a father of three inventor-type sons, and a long time editor for Popular Mechanics. His Alvin books are set in the nonspecific 1960s and feel a lot like the Homer Price books or Good Old Archibald. Classic good fare for young boys who are reading independently and who, like Alvin, have minds that are “continually working on some kind of a problem.”
In this series starter, Alvin, his sister “The Pest”, and his best friend Shoie work together to solve an interesting mystery. A little bit Hardy Boys, a lot Homer Price, the kids must summon courage, creativity, and teamwork to solve a crime that is actively being committed. Of course the kids are the heroes of the story. Of course the kids sneak out at night. Of course Alvin is rude to his sister. Like Beverly Cleary in the Ramona books, Hicks keeps kids very kid-like – warts and all. However, also like Cleary, Hicks writes his characters with good values, sincere respect for right and wrong, and true love between siblings. These characters have imagination, courage and good character.
“Shoie and the Pest looked at him. There was surprise in their eyes. There was admiration, too.”
Written in the sweet spot for 8-12 year old boys, this book is interesting enough to please just about any independent reader who is beyond Nate the Great, Frog and Toad, and Henry and Mudge. Moms of inventors may want to be warned that this is likely to stimulate all kinds of “creative” problem solving from their kids. I shuddered as I read, knowing all too well how many of these “inventions” are likely to show up in my kitchen at some point.
Safe. Well written. Wholesome. Creative. Entertaining. A wonderful series to help readers transition out of “I Can Read” books and into short novels.
“Finally he said, ‘Both of you should be spanked within an inch of your lives. In the first place, you’ve been told many times to stay away from the Huntley house. In the second place, Alvin, you sawed off your mother’s broom handle, took one of her mirrors, and used the garden hose without permission. In the third place, both of you sneaked out at night. We want no sneaks in this family. In the fourth place, you know better than to take the chances you did with two dangerous men…in the fifth place, your mother and I are the proudest parents in the whole wide world. We’re proud that we have children so brave. And we’re proud that we have children with imagination, who can use their heads to solve problems. Children, you’ll never know how proud we are.’”