Middle Grade mystery. Three words that immediately pique my interest. Add to those three words “smart and sassy protagonist” and I’m sold. A good middle grade mystery can shake me out of a funk better than just about any other type of book. I treated myself to Cynthea Liu’s recently released MG mystery, Paris Pan takes the Dare, and I vowed it would be one of my last reads of the summer, before things go all crazy in classroom-land.
Paris Pan is the new kid in town. She has a lot of experience with this role because her family moves every eight months or so, as soon as her father finishes building and then selling their latest house. Paris is keenly aware of the various consequences of this nomadic lifestyle: “One, in the middle of the night, I’ve almost gone to the bathroom in a closet twice. Two, my school transcript is longer than any Harry Potter book. And three, my lifelong friend roster has only one name on it – my dog’s.” While she half-jokes about it, there are real and difficult problems with her family’s unusual way of life. Her dad isn’t around much, since he’s always off supervising the next project, the family’s soon-to-be home. Her mom has to work long hours as a computer programmer to make ends meet, but finances are still a constant struggle. When Paris arrives in Sugar Lake Oklahoma, she discovers it isn’t so hard to find friends when there are only a couple of girls in her class in the first place. Too bad it doesn’t take long for Paris to realize her “friends” are not exactly ideal friend material. Secretly, she’d rather hang around with the class dork and the girl everyone calls Freak. Soon after moving, Paris learns that a girl died very close to her house when undergoing a seventh-grade rite of passage known as “the Dare.” This makes the strange noises and odd night-time sightings Paris has been experiencing all the more disturbing. When her friends decide they should all take the dare together, Paris has to try to make sense of the weirdness, sorting out friends from frenemies and ghosts from perfectly explicable occurrences before things get seriously out of control.
Cynthea Liu has a clean and highly readable writing style. You don’t feel like there are a lot of wasted words on the page but you’re still getting careful characterization (even with the secondary characters) and detail enough to make situations easy to imagine. I thought she captured the middle grade girl voice particularly well. Here’s the opening:
“Where should I start? The first time I felt my life hanging in the balance? Or the moment I believed the deceased had a way of talking to me? Or maybe I ought to begin with the second I walked into that school. Looking back, I should have been suspicious from day one, but now I know that when you want something badly enough, you’ll do anything to get it.
You’ll lie to your friends.
Steal from your family.
Eat a whole box of Creamsicles.
You might even go so far as taking the Dare.”
That’s pretty efficient writing, if you ask me. Talk about a lesson in how to open a novel. Less than 10 sentences in and you’ve already got a solid sense of this character’s personality and funny/sometimes-sarcastic voice, a little foreshadowing, and a teasing intro to the central conflict. Nice work Cynthea.
The plot is exciting, and quite spooky, what with the creepy run-down shed in the woods behind Paris’s house, the night-time laughter, and the freaky porcelain dolls lying around the property. It’s just right that there are unanswered questions about the girl’s death, and that this ambiguity is never really resolved even at the end. Aside from being a page-turning mystery, this is a book about why kids label each other and how even a good kid can find it difficult to risk her reputation by giving outsiders a chance. It’s about learning to make an effort to create relationships that are meaningful and rich, rather than just going with the status quo because it’s simpler or cooler or less painful.
Liu has created a video about this story, revealing the ways in which it was inspired by her own childhood and life experiences:
Finally, admire the cover. You can’t fully appreciate the cool detail in the design until you see it in front of you, but here’s a pretty good image from title artist Sarah Coleman’s site. Do you not love the way the light from Paris’s flashlight illuminates all of the curvy drawings of important items from the story (Paris’s house, the doll, a basketball, a ouija board, a creamsicle) and that everything is all woven together to look like branches? Beautiful. The drawing of Paris is by Luisa Montalto, another super-talented artist, by the looks of her work.
Paris Pan is right up there with another of my favourite new middle-grade girl sleuths, Sherry Holmes, Barrie Summy’s fab heroine in I So Don’t Do Mysteries. (FYI, Barrie’s second Sherry mystery, I So Don’t Do Spooky, is coming this fall. YAY – cannot wait!). I can only imagine the trouble Paris and Sherry would get up to if circumstances ever brought them together. Paris Pan Takes the Dare is sure to be a hit with any mystery-loving girl you know. Perfect back-to-school gift with a box of Creamsicles.
Paris Pan Takes the Dare is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.