Release Date: 2008 – Present
Series: The 39 Clues 1-10; The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising; The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers 1-3+
Age Group: 9-12
Pages: various (from 150 – 327)
Source: provided by publisher as reference for freelance work (see below)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5★; Execution 3.5★
Amy and Dan Cahill are just two regular kids. Amy’s shy and quiet; Dan’s rowdy and hilarious. Except for their grandmother, Grace, they have no family—that they know of—and when she dies, it seems they really are on their own…
…until Grace’s will reveals that not only are they part of a larger family, but it’s, well, HUGE! (Not to mention the most powerful in human history.) But before Dan and Amy can get too cuddly, they also find out that there’s a family feud stretching all the way back to Gideon Cahill and his quarrelsome kids in the 1500s that splits the Cahills into four branches. What’s more, they discover that a secret formula lies at the root of the feud—and it’s up to them to find all of the clues before anyone else can.
Book 1, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan, sets the siblings off on a globe-trotting trek to uncover Gideon Cahill’s greatest secret. Filled with action, adventure, geographic thrills, and spine-tingling chills, the series continues in the 9 following volumes, each written by a different author (incl. Gordon Korman, Patrick Carman, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park and several more).
Dan and Amy’s story picks up again in series two, Cahills vs. Vespers, with an intermediate novel to bridge the gap, Vespers Rising. I recommend beginning with series one, book one, and working your way up. So far, only two books have been published in the Cahills vs. Vespers series, with book three, The Dead of Night, due out March 6.
I was first introduced to the 39 Clues when I was asked to participate in the creation of some materials for a webcast featuring Ruth Culham—with whom I worked closely on the Scholastic Traits Writing program—and the 39 clues. (You can find the materials I helped generate here.) The webcast and worksheets were designed to get kids examining text and excited about writing by introducing them to the Traits and helping them discover in favorite/familiar books models and mentors for their own work.
While I didn’t have to read them all, after book one I found I had quite a fondness for Dan’s quirky character and Amy’s burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Their characters are really lively and well done—and despite the variety of authors, surprisingly consistent. I wound up reading 6 of the 10, and was pleased to revisit their world in the second series this past January when I was asked to participate in another related project.
The idea is really stellar and complex (despite some implicit/inadvertent eurocentrism) and the adventures are fun—the pace is nothing if not quick. Historical figures, bits of world cultures and geographic trivia are laced innocuously throughout. I was surprised myself, after the fact, to reflect on how much I had accidentally learned from the series about peope, places, and things I had thought I was quite knowledgable about. Coupled with the interactive website, there’s a lot for unsuspecting reluctant-reading minds to glean.
The writing is simple, fairly transparent, and there’s a somewhat “Nancy Drew” quality to Dan and Amy’s sleuthing and often predictable resolutions (which is one reason I didn’t press on to read the final four titles). But the series mixes it up – not always allowing Dan and Amy the spotlight OR the victory outright. Because the Cahill family is so large, there is a vast cast of multicultural characters to meet (though none of them is ever very deeply developed) and the 3rd-person perspective switches up regularly, providing lots of twists and turns.
Not deep or heavy by any means, often overly simple for the older reader in me, these are nonetheless fun, light, catching reads that could serve for the kid-at-heart as a good buffer between dark apocalypses and epic fantasies. Something like Spy Kids meets Carmen Sandiego turned print—though generally less cheesy and far more complex. The books had me clue-hunting right along with the Cahills, curious to find out how it would all wrap up in the end.
I definitely recommend these book for the 9-12-ers—who I’ve witnessed can get really NUTS for these things!—as well as for the adventurous 13+(+++)-er.