Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Who first made you fall in love?

Craig every second Tuesday. 

Kennedy McMann is the latest actress to play teen sleuth Nancy Drew onscreen

I've been thinking about children's authors and particularly kids' mysteries a fair bit lately, for a few reasons. While I've spent the last dozen or so years reading, reviewing, writing about and talking about mainly adult crime and thriller tales, my lifetime love for this wonderful genre was sparked then stoked by exciting tales I read as a child: a lot of Hardy Boys books, the occasional Nancy Drew, a handful of the Secret Seven, plenty of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot, and even an early taste of translated crime.

More on that latter one later.

Recently my daughter and I read The Secret Seven: The Mystery of the Skulla newer tale written by award-winning kids author Pamela Butchart almost sixty years after the final book of the original Enid Blyton series. It was a real joy to read for us both. Miss Six loved the mystery and adventure with a touch of spookiness (she's a big fan of Scooby Doo too), and it was a bit special for me to witness her excitement and wonder and be reminded of how I fell in love with books myself when I was her age.

Peter, Janet, Jack, Barbara, George, Pam and Colin are back in action

Books are pretty amazing, when you pause to think about it. And so are those who create them. Not only are books awesome because of the entertainment or education they can provide (often both), but much more besides. 

Recent studies have even shown that reading fiction improves empathy, EQ, and effective decision-making. While many successful people in business and beyond hail the importance of reading regularly, research has shown that reading fiction can be just as helpful as reading non-fiction books that seem more directly linked to your chosen industry or career aspirations. 

I digress. Though I love this quote from past Children's Laureate Chris Riddell (emphasis added): 
"Children’s books are engines for empathy.
They allow us to see through the eyes of others.
By transporting us to other worlds they help us to understand our own."

One of my favourite questions to ask authors I interview, whether onstage or for magazines or websites, is their memories of the first book they remember reading and really loving (not just the first book they recall reading) - the book/s that made them lifelong lovers of stories. I even incorporated that question into my 9mm author interview series (a nine-question Q&A) that began with Lee Child back in 2010, and last week had its 223rd edition with First Nations storyteller Wayne Arthurson. 

It's been fascinating to see the array of books mentioned, many of them children's books. 

Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven mysteries were popular with several nascent crime superstars (eg Lee Child, John Connolly, Sophie Hannah, Peter Robinson), while James Oswald, Steve Hamilton, and the great James Lee Burke were among several who kickstarted things by reading the Hardy Boys. A love of Nancy Drew was a launch-pad for Kathy Reichs, Liza Marklund, and others. 

MWA Grand Master James Lee Burke loved the Hardy Boys

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows was a first crush for British crime legends PD James and Val McDermid, while my fellow Murder is Everywhere scribe Zoe Sharp was among several crime writers to fondly recall Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, first published in 1877. "The book worked on so many levels, not least because for what appeared on the surface to be a children's story about the eponymous horse of the title it also affected the social conscience of the time," said Zoe. 

For Jeffrey Siger, Huckleberry Finn was a special book, while for Murder is Everywhere founder Leighton Gage (RIP), who I had the privilege of interviewing back in 2010, it was a kids' picture book about a dachshund that held a special place in his heart, even fifty years later. 

Why that book? Here's Leighton's own words: 
What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
That would be Pretzel. I had it read to me when I was four or five years old and, for years, it was my most cherished possession. When I learned to read, I read it over and over. To my young mind, there was a perfect symmetry to it. (The first and last lines in the book are exactly the same.) The book has it all. Rejection, Heartbreak, Heroism, Love, Ultimate Acceptance and Success – all in 32 widely-spaced pages.

I thought the book was out of print, lost and gone forever, until one of my daughters bought it for one of her children. “One morning in May,” I said to her when I spotted it, “five little dachshunds were born.” She looked at me strangely. “First and last lines of the book,” I said.

More than fifty years had gone by, but I still remembered it. Now, that’s a book. If you have kids (or grandkids) – buy Pretzel.

When I wrote my first book Southern Cross Crime (2020), I was augmenting a terrific series of books about the crime genre that had been written by the redoubtable British crime critic Barry Forshaw (eg Nordic Noir, Brit Noir, American Noir). As I say in the introduction, my goal was to "bring the pavlova to Barry’s buffet" with my coverage of Australian and New Zealand crime writing. 

One way that I stepped away from the prior books in the series, however, was that I included a section on crime and mystery writing for younger readers. Given the books that made me fall in love with mysteries as a youngster myself, I really wanted to shine a light on their modern, antipodean peers. 

As I said then, "Anyone who encourages kids to develop a love of reading, who opens those early doors to a whole world of learning and stories and imagination and possibility, is a rock star in my books. So, there’s no way I was going to write a book that didn’t include some of them."

So where did your love for crime and mystery begin? What were your favourite reads as a youngster, in any genre? I'd love for you to share your own 'first loves' in the comments. 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I thought I'd start a regular endnote to my posts where I share a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life. 

He iti hau marangai e tū te pāhokahoka
(Just like a rainbow after the storm, success follows failure.)

Rainbow over fields near Tokoroa, NZ   Credit: Sarah Macmillan


  1. Great piece, Craig. All the books you mentioned were popular with me as a youngster. I think the one I recall best as grabbing me was The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols.

  2. My earliest memory of reading and books was Beatrix Potter's Tales series, particularly Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and Jemima Puddleduck. Danger and excitement in child-size little hardcover books with beautiful illustrations. It was there I first learned the word 'soporific'. I was probably around two at the time.

  3. A half-dozen "Little Golden Books," The Boxcar Children, Chip the Dam Builder, Born Free, then Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Doc Savage, then on to science fiction. I only returned to mysteries much later in life.

    1. Ah, the Little Golden Books were great. I had several of those two, and recently got some for our daughter.

  4. Voracious reader of all the Enid Blyton books as a kid. She was my inspiration for mystery-writing. Black Beauty was the book that cemented my love for horses, as well as the My Friend Flicka series.

    1. Blyton seems a bit underappreciated - even though so many people know of her name of course, but really she had a beyond remarkable, all-time legendary output - Famous Five alone would have put her among the classics, but also Secret Seven, The Magic Faraway Tree, and so much more. Just phenomenal.

  5. I am nearing the end of a read-athon of old favorites: Wind in the willows, Little women, Black beauty, and one of the two books that had the greatest influence on me as a writer- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (the other being On the Beach by Nevil Shute). Other than that Enid Blyton, the Hardy boys and, of course for those of us who are sports nuts, the Teddy Lester series.

  6. Craig, I don't know how I missed this spectacular post up until this moment. Obviously, I was distracted from my normal routine of reading MIE each morning. But the good Lord punished me for my lapse in an ironic way. My granddaughter celebrates her eighth birthday tomorrow (Easter) and I've been struggling to come up with unique books to feed her ferocious reading habits. Barbara picked Charlotte's Web, and Stuart Little, and my granddaugher put in a request for more "Judy Moody" books...leaving me adrift. I was drawn into reading by the Little Golden Books that EvKa and you mentioned, but they seemed too young for her. HAD I ONLY READ YOUR COLUMN. At least I can give her a rain check and say, "BLYTON is on the way courtesy of Uncle Craig." Thanks for the help and my sincere apologies for not telling you soon what a great post this is.