by Marcia Talley
I come from a long line of frugal New Englanders, so it’s no surprise that I tend to drive my cars until they practically disintegrate in my driveway. Thus, it was a sad, sad day when I waved goodbye to my beloved 1994 Chrysler LeBaron – which was crying out for its third transmission in almost as many years – as it was hauled away on a flatbed truck by a nice guy from Purple Heart. To replace it, I did my research, reading Consumer Reports and doing comparisons on the Internet before turning up at a local VW dealership looking to test drive a VW Eos convertible. “I want it in blue,” I told the salesman, Keith, but there was no blue model on the lot. “The paprika red is hot,” Keith said. “You can drive that baby away today.” I shook my head. He tried again, “Candy white? Island gray?”
I was in the middle of explaining to Keith why color was a deal breaker – it was going to be blue or nothing – when it suddenly occurred to me why the color was important. Blame it on Nancy Drew. She drove a snappy blue roadster, and so, doggonit, would I.
How is it that a series of novels that debuted in 1930 – decades before I was born -- have such an influence on me as a young girl that I became not only a rabid reader of mysteries, but a mystery novelist as well? How to explain why I was sitting in a squeaky leather chair, pouting until I got to drive off in a car just like Nancy’s? Another famous Nancy said it far better than I in the preface to the facsimile edition of The Hidden Staircase, "I Owe It All to Nancy Drew."
Statistics indicate that our nation’s children are spending less time reading and more time watching television, playing video games or texting. This is alarming for many reasons, not the least being this – if there is going to be an audience in future for the kind of books we write, we need to start cultivating that audience today. That’s why I rarely turn down the opportunity to speak to children and young adults, in schools and libraries, and for community groups like the Girl Scouts. The kids I’ve met may be spending a lot of time in front of a television or computer screen, but I’ve found that they’re endlessly fascinated by mysteries, too.
Not long ago I was giving a talk during “Career Day” to a group of seventy 5th graders, and I asked how many of them had seen the television program CSI. Papers on the librarian’s desk fluttered as nearly every hand shot up. At a high school in my husband’s home town the English and Science departments collaborated on a joint study unit, “Forensic Science in Literature.” I was the literature half of the program. On a balmy autumn weekend in San Diego, I gave the keynote address for a brilliantly organized Girl Scout sleepover that included a hands-on CSI workshop -- crime scene, evidence specimens, microscopes, white lab coats and all – followed by a mystery-writing workshop. And next month, on Friday October 19, I’m looking forward to partnering with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science in a hands-on CSI/Creative Writing Workshop for teens as part of the Virginia Literary Festival.
Remember that line in the 1989 Kevin Costner flick, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come?” The same could be said about mysteries. J.K. Rowling turned millions of children on to reading with the adventures of Harry Potter, and if standing in line for hours in order to be the first kid on your block to read a book that’s more 700 pages long doesn’t prove that if you give kids good books, they will read them, I don’t know what does.
If we write them, they will come.
Do you need a gift for a youngster? Remember the solve-it-yourself mysteries featuring Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, the boy detective? For middle school children, how about Mary Stuart’s classic, The Moonspinners; or The Name of the Game was Murder by Joan Lowrey Nixon; Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game; or Chris Grabenstein’s Haunted Mystery series. And for the high school crowd, you couldn’t do better than to recommend Josephine Tey’s timeless classic, Daughter of Time; Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter; She Walk These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb, or anything by one of the Femmes Fatales. And Agatha Christie, too, of course.
My stint as an Edgar judge for the juvenile mystery category made it clear that authors are still turning out such masterpieces, tomorrow’s classics like the books among this year’s Edgar award nominees, or those that were nominated for an Agatha Award in the same category.
In my travels, I’ve discovered that kids, just like their parents, want to know ‘where do you get your ideas?’ and are fascinated when an author talks about the whole creative process, from the germ of an idea up through publication. At one presentation, a bright-eyed 4th grader examined in amazement the marked-up, copyedited, Post-it note bedecked manuscript I’d brought along. “You mean grownups don’t get it perfect the first time either?”
Oh, Brittany, how I wish!