I wanted to read The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore after reading Sherry’s and Stephanie’s reviews and because it is a Cybils middle grade fiction nominee. This piece of middle grade historical fiction has a bit of mystery thrown in, and it’s one with an ending that surprised me and warmed my heart. It’s the story of Hazel Kaplansky, fifth grade detective and all-around smart girl. Hazel lives in Vermont during the McCarthy era. She’s something of a loner at school, and the fact that she doesn’t really have any friends is probably compounded by the fact that because her parents are the caretakers of the town’s cemetery, she lives and plays there. Hazel definitely marches to the beat of her very own self-confident drum, but her little world tilts a bit on its axis when a new, smart student–a boy–enters her class. She decides to enlist his help in solving a mystery involving the cemetery’s gravedigger, whom Hazel believes to be a Russian spy. This mystery leads Hazel to some unexpected conclusions.
I’ll admit that I didn’t really like Hazel for most of the story. However, Hazel shows growth and empathy by the end of the story, so I ended up liking her quite a bit by the end. I also thought the writing was a bit clunky sometimes. For example, rather than just letting the reader figure out some things for herself, we get this explicit characterization:
Hazel said good-bye and hopped on her bike. She rode to the hill and pedaled hard, standing up and shifting the bike from side to side. It was a big, steep hill, and a lot of people got off their bikes and just walked up. But Hazel was not a lot of people. By the end of the hill she was barely moving, but she made it to the top. She raised her fist in the air. (216)
In the end, though, this is a good and satisfying story, especially to mystery/history/adventure loving kids. I already handed it off to 9 year old Louise and she enjoyed it, and I plan to offer it to Lulu, too. (Bloomsbury, 2014)