The 39 Clues (slick and gimmicky but hard to resist)


The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones is exactly the kind of book that I would not have been allowed to buy as a kid (which may explain why I wanted to check it out as an adult). It would have been deemed empty of literary merit and if that alone wasn’t enough to keep the book from going home with me, the card-collecting element would have sealed the deal. Intrigued by the multi-author arrangement of the series, as well as the online aspect of the narrative, I picked up book #1 and read it lightning fast.

Scholastic has created quite the concept here, a 10-book series loaded with multi-media connections, authored by some of the brightest and best writers for kids out there. The line-up:

Book 1: Rick Riordan
Book 2: Gordon Korman
Book 3: Peter Lerangis
Book 4: Jude Watson (aka Judy Blundell)
Book 5: Patrick Carman
Book 6: Jude Watson
Book 7: Peter Lerangis
Book 8: Gordon Korman
Book 9: Linda Sue Park
Book 10: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Undoubtedly, a super-impressive bunch of storytellers. In the end, I think that’s what I’m most interested in. I want to see if these authors manage to apply their own winning twist or tone to the stories that they are responsible for telling while maintaining some kind of cohesiveness within the series of related books. I’m not sure if that will happen. Book #3: The Sword Thief, has just been released, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

Amy and Dan Cahill are orphans (of course), who discover after the death of their beloved Aunt Grace, that their family is one of the most powerful in human history. Many of the world’s most celebrated figures (Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Picasso) were Cahills, belonging to different branches of the family: Lucian, Janus, Ekaterina, and Tomas. At the reading of their Aunt’s will, Amy and Dan learn that Grace has created a complex challenge for her relatives that may reveal the source of the Cahill family’s true power, and make those able to crack the challenge the most powerful Cahills ever known. 39 clues are hidden around the world to lead the searchers to the final secret of the Cahill family. Amy and Dan must choose to accept the challenge or walk away with a million dollars each. Their relatives are offered the same deal. Some accept, including the siblings, and this begins a whirlwind adventure as Amy and Dan race to get ahead in this mysterious quest.

Within each book is a set of 6 clue cards that kids can collect and trade. The cards are meant to help readers get a deeper sense of the mystery and potentially to understand the secret purpose of this challenge alongside Amy and Dan. Kids can go onto The 39 Clues site, create an account, and enter their cards on the site. This gives readers access to “missions” that will help them to enter the world of the story in a deeper way, and work on the central mystery with more insider information. It also reveals which of the 4 branches of the family you belong to. You can read classified information on your branch’s page, but only after you’ve registered as a user. And guess what? You can buy more cards! (Gasp!) And no two packages are alike! (Imagine) There’s going to be a movie directed by Stephen Spielberg (who just happens to be a Janus, BTW). And you can win prizes if you solve puzzles! Slick indeed.

Before I started blogging and began to discover that technology can be an enriching and stimulating environment, I know that I would have dismissed all of this as straight up money-grabbing technique that diverts kids from what I believe matters most: reading books for life. I’m not naive. I get that this is about attracting kids who enjoy gaming and the online experience (and winning stuff). I believe that it makes the books less the focus than stories that are published without all of these add-ons. I do think, however, that the multi-media element does hold the potential to make the world of this story richer for kids for whom technology is a draw. I wasn’t a computery kid. Of course, I grew up when computers were just starting to become normal in the home. What would have attracted me, as a voracious child reader, is the way that the technology keeps the story going after you’ve stopped reading. That would have been exciting.

I think we can look at this series as gimmicky, for sure, but I also think we can appreciate that while it sells books, technology can broaden the world of a story too. I read a review of this first book in the series and the writer wondered if the books could stand on their own, without the website and the collectible cards. I don’t think that’s a question that makes much sense, because these books aren’t meant to stand on their own. They are part of a different type of creation.

So how did The Maze of Bones read? I am a Rick Riordan fan. Love the Percy Jackson books. I could see some of the humour and cleverness of those stories in The Maze of Bones, but it isn’t on the same level as Riordan’s own series. Amy and Dan are constructed quite quickly, and they’re pretty predictable, really just vehicles for the action. The other members of the Cahill clan don’t come through in much more than a superficial way either. This is a book all about plot, and moving faster and faster towards the end. It’s been compared to The Da Vinci Code and The Amazing Race and Survivor, and I think those comparisons hold up. This is a story meant to be consumed and enjoyed for the race and the puzzle of it. We all need that kind of entertainment sometimes. I liked how the book gets into history as Benjamin Franklin’s life and achievements are central to the plot. I’m interested in seeing if this kind of focus on history continues in subsequent stories.

So, will I read One False Note, Gordon Korman’s sequel? I think so. Will I read all 10? We’ll have to see how the premise and the characters hold up along the way.

There’s an interesting article in Time Magazine about the series.

3 thoughts on “The 39 Clues (slick and gimmicky but hard to resist)

  1. Doret

    I was just thinking today I should check out 39 clues one of these days but they sell so well on their own I keep putting it off for later.

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