When You Read, You Begin With ABC*

As this is posted, it’s 65 years since the first publication of Dr. Seuss’ classic The Cat in the Hat. That book has drawn millions of children into reading, and still does. And the research strongly suggests a number of cognitive and other benefits for children who read.

There are, of course, plenty of examples in crime fiction of children who like to read. And they can make for really interesting characters, too. After all, readers develop some interesting perspectives! Agatha Christie brings up the idea of young people reading in several of her stories. In The Hollow, for instance, the main plot concerns the murder of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He’s shot during a weekend visit with some friends, and Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. Christow leaves behind a widow, Gerda, and two children, Terry and Zena. Terry is precocious and is especially interested in science. He’s an avid reader, too, and curious about the world. It’s a bit difficult for his mother, who isn’t a reader, and who most people think of as ‘slow.’ Terry’s interest in reading and finding things out are hard for him, too; he wants answers about his father’s murder, and the adults in his life have a habit of condescending to him. To give just one more example, most people would agree that Postern of Fate is not Christie’s finest work. But it does have a really interesting discussion at the beginning about how children get into the reading habit. In the novel, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are discussing reading, and Tuppence explains that most of her childhood friends just simply picked up the habit, and then as one child did, others did. That makes sense if you consider that, during those years, there was no television and no Internet.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces ten-year-old Kate Meany. She wants more than anything else to be a detective. In fact, she even has her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations, and spends whatever time she can looking for suspicious activity so she can catch criminals. Her prized possession is a book, How to be a Detective, that her father gave her. The closest thing she has to a best friend is twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, who lives next door. Adrian’s very much a reader, and he talks to Kate a lot about the detective stories he reads. He knows about her business, and that she finds crime interesting, so he shares some of what he’s learned with her. His influence helps Kate to develop an interesting perspective, and their friendship is good for both of them. Everything changes when he accompanies Kate to sit the entrance exams for an exclusive school, Redspoon. Both of them go to the school, but only Adrian comes back. There’s a massive search for Kate, but there’s no trace of her – not even a body. Everyone blames Adrian for what happened, to the point where he ends up leaving town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister, Lisa, is working at the local mall, when she meets Kurt, a security guard who also works there. The two of them form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, go back to the time of Kate’s disappearance. As they do, we learn what happened to Kate.

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet fifteen-year-old Chrisopher Boone. He has autism, but functions at a high enough level that he can attend school. He likes reading, and he’s especially fond of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. In fact, the book inspires him to do his own detecting. One day, Christopher comes upon the body of the dog who lives in the house next door. Its owner blames Christopher for the animal’s death, but Christopher knows that he isn’t guilty. So, he decides to follow clues and find out what happened, just like Sherlock Holmes. His search leads him to the truth about the dog – and some truths about himself.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge is the story of twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. He’s an extremely bright boy, but he does have issues getting along with others, and doesn’t handle anger very well. He reads detective stories, being a particular fan of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. In fact, he wants to be a private investigator himself, just like Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care home where she lives. Huge takes the case, and starts to look for clues and evidence. In the process, he does some growing of his own.

And then there’s Flavia de Luce, who is eleven when we first meet her, in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia has a deep interest in and knowledge of chemistry, and a large collection of chemistry books. She reads regularly and likes to conduct experiments based on what she’s read. Her knowledge of chemistry comes in handy when she discovers the body of a strange man in her family’s garden. The police are called in, and they begin their investigation, but the evidence begins to point towards Flavia’s own father. She is convinced that he’s innocent and decides to find out for herself who murdered the man. And, in the end, she discovers the truth.

When young people read, they develop critical thinking skills, they learn important cognitive skills, and they broaden their perspectives. Also they make for interesting crime-fictional characters. And The Cat in the Hat got a lot of them started.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Do-Re-Mi.


10 thoughts on “When You Read, You Begin With ABC*

  1. Some interesting examples Margot, and although my first experience of Dr. Seuss was Solla Sollew, I do love the Cat in the Hat books. As for Postern of Fate, I know it’s flawed and gets bad press, but I love Tommy and Tuppence so it does have a special place in my heart!

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    1. Tommy and Tuppence are great characters, aren’t they, KBR? And at any rate, Christie at her weakest is better than heaps of people at their best… As for Dr. Seuss, I’m glad you mentioned Solla Sollew; it’s a a good story that doesn’t get nearly the attention that some of his others do. Those lesser-known stories can be real gems.

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