The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan

Note: The following review is based upon the first five books in this series. Should we object to the contents of the remaining five books, we reserve the right to rain fire upon the heads of all parties involved.

We admit it—we were suspicious when we first encountered The 39 Clues. True, Scholastic Publishing is home to some of our favorite kids' authors, but a ten-book-long series (each edition costing upwards of twelve dollars!) combined with an online game and collectible card set sounded a lot like a parental money sink. We resolved to keep an open mind, however, and we are pleased to announce that our doubts have now been laid to rest. These books are undeniably expensive, but they are also surprisingly educational and incredibly fun.

Scholastic launched The 39 Clues in September of 2008, and has been trotting out additional books roughly every three months ever since. The first novel in the series, The Maze of Bones, was written by Percy Jackson and the Olympians author Rick Riordan, who also outlined the complete story arc. Future installments are being written by several well-known children's lit authors, including Patrick Carman, Linda Sue Park, and Margaret Peterson Haddix. The books are accompanied by an online "multi-media adventure" game and 350 cards, some of which are included with the books and the rest of which are available to purchase. (The card-and-computer game stuff struck our adult reviewer as fiddly and boring, but the two ten-year-olds we drafted to help seemed to find them amusing enough.)

The books, happily, work with or without the supplementary materials. The series focuses on the Cahill family, a sprawling group only distantly related by blood. When the family matriarch dies her will offers the beneficiaries a choice: they can either accept a million dollars apiece or receive a clue. The first to assemble all 39 clues will discover the source of the family's power and inherit a mysterious fortune. The least likely contestants for a world-wide search are 11-year-old Dan and 14-year-old Amy Cahill, but the orphaned, penniless brother-and-sister team decide to join the hunt regardless, hoping to discover a link between the clue search and their parents' deaths.

One hears a lot about the terrible math and science education here in the U.S., but we here at Wordcandy have long believed that history and geography are just as bad, if not worse. No matter how many dates and places kids memorize, it frequently takes some kind of narrative to fix an idea in their heads. The 39 Clues has historical and geographical references coming out of its ears (Amy and Dan have investigated everything from Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the Russian revolution, and wandered as far afield as Egypt and South Korea), and while you couldn't replace school textbooks with this series, we suspect the books will add some hardcore staying power when kids get around to studying this stuff for real.

You don't really need additional justification to check this series out, though. Sure, they have some educational value, but entertainment-wise, these books leave stuff like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or those American Girl books in the dust. These stories are made up out of short, cheerfully implausible adventures with likeable characters, a lot of humor, and a hint of romance. Reading The 39 Clues for the first time is like discovering a terrific, all-ages-friendly action movie: ridiculously entertaining and smarter than you have any right to expect.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


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