Unlike my friend Shelly Kelly, owner of the late, lamented Afterwords bookstore, I am not an expert on kids’ books or kids’ mysteries, and we sell only a very small slice of what’s available. Most of what we sell is stuff we like and remember from when we were kids, like Harriet the Spy, or kids’ series books like Nancy Drew, Goosebumps, etc., and there is now a new category – books by authors who also write adult fiction. If you’ve read any of Carl Hiaasen’s books for adults you might be surprised that he would be writing for kids – no swear words or violence? – but what he is at heart is a wonderful storyteller and he certainly remembers what it’s like to be an adolescent boy. In a market glutted with fiction aimed at girls this is a breath of fresh air. Stripped of the above mentioned violence and swear words, Hiaasen writes a great story, and he retains the humor that is so happily laced throughout his adult novels. His first outing, Hoot, won the Newberry Medal, and Flush is every bit as good.
One thing that does translate well for kids is the environmental slant that runs through all Hiaasen’s books, and his kids’ books are built around it too. Also translating well are the array of eccentric characters that always populate his adult novels, and the fact that the main character has a grievance that needs to be addressed. In Flush the grievance of Noah Underwood comes directly from his Dad, Paine, who’s accused of sinking a casino boat for reasons he’s willing to share with all and sundry. He thinks the owner has been dumping the toilet waste directly into the ocean, but can’t prove it (hence the title, of course). While his Dad’s in jail and his mother is talking to a divorce lawyer, Noah and his sister Abbey set out to prove their Dad’s innocence.
I was talking to a fellow bookseller about another recent kid’s book, Down the Rabbit Hole (which I also thought was excellent), and he felt that the kids were doing stuff that was too dangerous, like sneaking out of the house at night alone. It’s true, this is a more dangerous world than it was for Nancy Drew and it probably is dangerous for Noah and Abbey, but I can’t really visualize a kid’s mystery where the kids don’t take things into their own hands and figure out what’s going on by themselves. It’s a way to independence for the characters, and that is a good lesson for the kids reading the books. My own kids (appeared to be) horrified when Abbey and Noah climbed out of their apartment window at midnight. As Noah goes about trying to prove that Dusty Muleman, the skanky owner of the casino boat, is guilty, he encounters bullies his own age (Dusty’s awful son), a strange and bizarre man named Lice Peeking, his scary girlfriend, Shelly, and a mysterious pirate who seems to appear out of nowhere just when Noah and Abbey are most in need of help.
This is a good, fast moving, funny and very much set in the present day (Noah is a skateboarder who reads skateboarding magazines in bed at night) novel. You can almost forget it was written by a middle aged author of adult mysteries as you’re reading it and imagine it comes from Noah’s very own mind. This is high praise for any book, I think, but if you’re looking for something for a hard to please in between reader, that’s a gold standard. Adult readers might get a kick out of it too, and in Noah’s ingenious solution to the problem of Dusty Muleman and his awful boat.