“Small Scares, Large Stakes” – Being A Kid Reader & Young Mysteries

I grew up reading.

I know a lot of people can connect to or attest to this, but I read a lot as a child, consuming fiction at a somewhat-shocking rate. It’s not something that is necessarily a universal experience though, and it’s surprising how many of my writing students (I’m a college lit and composition instructor for my day job) didn’t and still don’t. Over time, I’ve stopped letting my shock at this shine through, because when it comes up early on at the start of my classes during semesters, it can make me seem aloof, odd, and unrelateable. And I strive for relatability in my teaching, especially in teaching young people how to get into the habit of writing regularly, how to work those mental muscles to express thoughts and build up their critical approach skills (and one of those ways is through regular reading).

Still, my students do have some book memories though, remembrances of things they liked reading when they were younger, before they felt they grew out of reading and other things in their lives took over. One of those memories inevitably is about the young-adult horror series by RL Stine, his Goosebumps books. They always cheer when I mention that I also read those as a kid. How could they not? Young adult mysteries, supernatural or otherwise, have been an indelible part of the book landscape for a long time, though fantasy seems to have supplanted it in the pop-culture consciousness, with the rise of the post-Harry Potter generation, the post-Hunger Games generation, where fantasy and post-apocalyptic settings have become the new metaphorical battlefields in which kids work their lives and issues out these days.

Still, authors like Bruce Coville and Lois Duncan, who touched on the supernatural in ways, were a massive part of my childhood reading patterns, and writers like that drew heavily on the paperback-crime/noir tradition of easily-digested digestibles “wing” of literature. My parents loved them for me, because they were labeled for kids and young teenagers but also I was interested in them, with lurid covers involving kids cowering behind couches and desks and doors as monstrous adults lurk in the background, clearly up to something bad. Those books led me to later on absorb my parents’ John Grisham, Ed McBain, and William Heffernan novels, because after all, once you get that taste of murder and mayhem and intrigue, you want more of it, obviously.

Right? Right?

Right.

These sorts of works were, in hindsight, horrifying. Books like Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer were incredibly-shaking to me, full of violence and betrayal in an almost-classical noir sense, but placed in a world that was not that far off from where I was then, on the cusp of middle school. High school wasn’t that far off for me, so for all I knew, high school was one big mess of cliques, murder, and double-crosses under the unsuspecting noses of adults (not unlike the very-noir film Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, but that’s another thread of thought). Of course, high school was nothing like the books that I read, and I can’t remember if that’s good or bad, because sometimes you have to wonder what it would have been like to actually be inside a Lois Duncan world. Imagine the world of Sweet Valley High with a lot more hit-and-run incidents and secret fathers who are murderers. Wild, huh?

Still, these books were some of the first to introduce young readers to worlds and relationships that sometimes ran hidden underneath and directly counter to structures of power. Yes, parents and teachers and principals and the kindly local sheriff are simplistic stand-ins for racism, patriarchy, corruption, and capitalist power structures, but for 10-13-year-olds, they’re far easier to digest and then translate into their more complex realistic counterparts later on in one’s life and reading trajectory. While my childhood reading was obsessively collecting and absorbing “The Hardy Boys” books by the collective of ghost writers that are Franklin W. Dixon, those books were arguably less about mysteries and adventures and more about the establishment of a cultural lens for looking at boyhood (another thread to follow entirely).

Anyway.

When I think and look back on a lot of those reads now, as an adult, I cringe a little, mostly because of how writers sometimes of that era imagined young people talked. However, I look back at them a lot too and wonder in amazement, because works like I Know What You Did Last Summer are kind of shockingly-gruesome. I mean, teenagers are drunk and run someone over, and then dump the body over the side of the road. They honestly portray adults and young people indulging in real crimes, real stuff. People die, people assault others, the stakes are measurably-real when you boil them down beyond kid mystery plots like “missing jewels” and “who destroyed the clubhouse” or whatever. Young adult literature lives in this gray area of writing, where in some aspects it’s a bridge between childhood reading and more adult works, but in others it’s its own ecosystem that sustains itself completely without regard for what comes before, after, or alongside.

The bridge aspects of it are, arguably, fading. Not that that’s a bad thing, but at the same time, it makes me oddly-nostalgic. I credit these books with being the original threads that tied me and tied my reading and writing to crime and mysteries. They laid the trestlework (to continue to the bridge metaphor) that led me to Clancy, and then Heffernan and McBain and Hammett and on, and on, and on. These sorts of works knew that they had a specific role in reading, which did lead to levels of awkwardness in how some things were handled and transitioned (lots of deus ex machinas, lots of sudden-discoveries in the last minutes, not to mention some of the very simplistic and oft-times cringeworthy takes on race, sexism, and violence).

However, I’d like to think that there’s still somewhere young readers with minds eager to read about mysteries, seeing covers that hint at the possibilities of horror and crime and terror, of crimes and uncertainties like these books were.

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