03 April 2006

Sadly, No Mystery at All

I've always been an American history junkie, as well as collecting children's books, especially those I read in my childhood. When the Pleasant Company started publishing their American Girls books, I was frankly in "hog heaven" (except for the price—talk about overpriced books!—and then Sam's Club started stocking the collections, which removed the fiscal obstacle). The original stories were about Felicity, a colonial girl; Kirsten, an immigrant pioneer girl; Samantha, a wealthy Victorian girl; and Molly, a girl growing up during World War II. Naturally my first purchase would be Molly's stories, since my parents were teenagers and then adults during the Depression and World War II and I felt close to their history.

Gradually, and through a buyout of Pleasant Company by Mattel, the series grew to include Kaya, a pre-Revolutionary War Nez Perce girl; Josefina, an early 19th-century New Mexican girl; Addy, a girl who escaped slavery near the end of the Civil War; and Kit, a girl growing up during the Depression. Accompanying the books were dolls and accessories for each girl and then other special volumes (short story books, cookbooks, "how to draw" books, etc., the finest of these being the volumes "Welcome to _________'s World," which used photographs and drawings of the time to illustrate the era of each girl in the series—just the sort of thing I doted on).

The best development to emerge from the American Girls franchise, however, was a stand-alone series of books called the "History Mysteries." These did not involve the series characters and moved in a random manner from a mystery taking place in one era of American history to another. One book might take place in War of 1812 Louisiana, while another would involve a mystery while collecting scrap metal in World War II. The "mystery girls" weren't cookie-cutter versions of any of the series book leads and some of the various mysteries involved history eras not much talked about today, such as the participants of the Alaskan gold rush, the world of the War of 1812, the fascinating lives of the lighthouse keeper's children, and even the plight of the Loyalists during the American Revolution. One of the "History Mysteries," The Night Flyers, about homing pigeons and World War I, won a Juvenile Edgar Award (mystery writer's trophy) and another was nominated.

But since girls and mysteries have gone together since the days of August Huiell Seaman and the Stratmeyer Syndicate books, including the immortal Nancy Drew, the Mattel folks have recently released a new line of mysteries starring the American Girls series book protagonists themselves. The books are fairly interesting in working the mystery format into the series milieu (some of the series stories already having involved minor mysteries), but sadly it seems to have spelled the end of the "History Mystery" stand-alone stories (not one has been released since volume 22, which was at least two years ago). It means the mystery stories are now stuck completely in the era of the series stories and we won't see any other eras represented—so many stories and periods were still waiting to be told: how about a mystery set during the cattle drive days? during the Spanish-American war? in a CCC camp? in a post-war (WWII) housing shortage area? in Florida during its "wild west" pioneer days? at a Northwest logging camp? an early California fruit farm or at one of the Spanish missions or during the "Okies" flight west during the Dust Bowl? or a Northwest Native American mystery (or perhaps a Pilgrim era version)? or one set in the early New England textile mills? Hundreds of wonderful ideas here yet to go!

Maybe Mattel is just taking a breather...but I fear it's the last gasp instead. Apparently, like the television networks, they would rather rake in the bucks while sticking to a formula than continue to branch out into other interesting directions to challenge the minds of their readers. And that, especially for history and mystery lovers of all ages, is a great shame.

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