Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Mystery on Church Hill by Steven K. Smith

Steven K. Smith has written a short Middle Grade novel (#2 in a series) called Mystery on Church Hill where the main character, a 3rd grader named Sam Jackson, and his older brother (4th grader), Derek, join forces to solve a mystery. While the book describes itself as geared for readers aged 7-12, I would venture to guess it would be best suited for seven and eight year olds. Middle Grade is a very large genre. 

It's a short piece where I was reminded of the "Scooby Doo" series of old and I couldn't tell if Mr. Smith was exhibiting a tongue in cheek homage to an old favorite of his (the villain actually says, "meddling"!) or simply innocently writing toward an audience for which this book is intended. 

The story is set in Richmond, Virginia and it felt like a world most comfortable for those readers who enjoy and resonate with a more suburban culture. There is a 'cartoon' feel here as all the adults are one-dimensional, and again, because of my estimate of the age range of its readers, the book would still hold their interest. Often, Sam and Derek felt like they were whirling around inside a giant cartoon. Everything felt rather antiseptic, and I was looking for something more solid to hang my hat upon, but then again, a seven year old would probably not even notice. 

Where Mr. Smith shines is when he involves us in actual historic events. The places and people and the skullduggery that beleaguered the famous and infamous of the 18th Century suddenly grounds the book and the cartoon wash instantly evaporates. Mr. Smith is passionate about this and the book is a terrific portal to introduce history to young readers in a captivating way. 

My head scratching is with the characters themselves. I found that Sam and his 3rd grade companions acted and talked as if they were much older. The boys call each other by their last names in jock-like fashion and they interrupt the teacher incessantly in the classroom scenes with odd random one-liners. While I am completely supportive of writers who raise the bar on vocabulary, I was thrown by this level of discourse among third graders: 
“Wow, thanks for the pep talk, Derek,” said Sam. “You should be a motivational speaker."
And then there is this one: 
“A solar microscope, very interesting! It actually fits, given his Enlightenment philosophy – using light and your senses and all.”

I must be out of the loop. 

It's a quick read with a nice wrap up lesson. I applaud Mr. Smith also for a portion of his sales going to support CHAT: Church Hill Activities & Tutoring, a non-profit group who work with inner-city youth in the Church Hill area of Richmond. 

Perhaps that's the best lesson of all.

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