The 39 Reactions

It’s been an interesting week, watching how people have responded in the press and on the Internet to the announcement about Scholastic’s 39 Clues.

Overwhelmingly, the debate has been, “Is 39 Clues really the next Harry Potter?” To which, naturally, skeptical fans have said, “Oh, please.” It’s unfortunate the original New York Times article used that as its focus. I understand what the writer meant. Now that the Harry Potter series is over, speculation is high about what Scholastic will do to fill that sales gap. From a business point of view, everyone is wondering what Scholastic’s “next Harry Potter” will be. But we all know there is no such thing as a next Harry Potter. That sort of once-in-a-generation event is not something you can create or plan. In terms of content, there is simply no basis for comparison between 39 Clues and Potter. Apples and oranges. Nor do I think anyone at Scholastic seriously intended 39 Clues to be a “successor” series. When I was approached about 39 Clues, certainly no one at Scholastic ever voiced that idea. No one ever said, “This is our next Harry Potter.” What they did say is they wanted to create something completely new. They wanted to design a series of books that was integrated with other things kids are interested in – like games and cards – much more deeply than anything that had been done before. They wanted to create a multiplatform adventure that could be experienced in real time. That’s what excited me about the project. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying new approaches to get kids interested in reading.

The second big comment I heard was this: “You can’t engineer a good series! It has to happen naturally.” An understandable sentiment. We are all weary shoppers with a healthy sense of cynicism. The more heavily something is marketed, the more we tend to rebel against it. We figure if a product is really being hyped, it can’t be any good. That’s a natural reaction in the Age of Consumerism. My only hope is that people will judge the books based on the books, not on preconceptions or hype, positive or negative. I’m confident that young readers will enjoy the story, and really, as the writer, that’s all I care about. If it appeals to adults as well, that’s great. But make no mistake: I’m writing for kids. I’ve read too many “children’s books” that were geared toward adults who read children’s books, but that actual, real-life children couldn’t stand. I’m not interested in writing that sort of book.

Was 39 Clues created differently than the average novel? Sure. It was very much a team effort. Usually when I create a book, I’m on my own until late in the writing process, when I turn over the project to my family, and finally my editor for comments. 39 Clues was designed more like a television series or a film. The editorial staff had the genesis of the idea. They started brainstorming. They talked to artists and game designers and booksellers. They came to me, and together we fleshed out the general framework for the series. They had some ideas for the first book, but I was given pretty wide latitude about where I took it. The tone, the character development, the plot details – this was all left to me. I have to say, I did not feel restricted. If anything, I found it exhilarating to take the team’s idea and make it come to life. It was a new experience for me, but a positive one. Creating something in a group setting doesn’t necessarily make it bad. We’ve all seen excellent television writing, and we’ve all seen terrible television writing. It depends on the idea and how well it is developed. When you read 39 Clues, you can decide for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The comment that surprised me the most was one blogger’s reaction to my statement about getting reluctant readers involved in books. I said that some kids may always prefer playing games to reading, but if I could convince even some of them that reading can be another way to have an adventure, I’d feel like I’d done my job. The blogger apparently felt that this was an unworthy aspiration for a writer – that I should be aiming for something higher. The Great American Novel? The Nobel Prize? I’m not sure. To me, as a teacher and a writer, getting reluctant readers to enjoy reading is a pretty important goal, and it’s one I’m proud to pursue. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t do us much good to produce the Great American Novel if we continue to create generations of nonreaders. Too many kids view reading as something boring and irrelevant that they only do because the school system makes them. Reading should be a pleasurable activity, and there’s nothing wrong with making books that are fun to read – especially when you’re talking about books for kids.

That doesn’t mean “dumbing down” books. I don’t accept the proposition that accessible books can have no literary merit. I don’t accept that good books must be difficult books that no one without a literature degree can understand. My favorite literature has always been populist literature meant to be enjoyed by the masses – from Shakespeare to Dickens to Mark Twain. It was Twain who warned us, in the forward to Huckleberry Finn, not to overanalyze what we read, and simply enjoy the story for the story. His work was roundly panned by the critics of his day as being not “literary” enough. Dickens shrewdly serialized his novels to increase his readership and sales. Shakespeare wrote works “on spec” for wealthy patrons. No doubt they would all be accused of crass commercialism today, but I sure wish I could write as well as they did.

At any rate, it was a thrill to be involved in the 39 Clues. I can’t wait to see what happens when the series launches in the fall! I hope those who are leery of the idea will give the books a chance and decide for themselves. I hope those who are excited about the series will find that the adventures surpass their expectations! I know my sons, having read The Maze of Bones in manuscript, are very anxious to find out what happens in the subsequent books! As a family, we are already swept up with the adventures of the Cahill family. In the meantime, it’s back to the world of Percy Jackson for me. I’m deep into the manuscript for the fifth and final book, and having a fabulous time with it!

Happy holidays and happy reading!

Rick Riordan