The Spaghetti Detectives is a brilliant and unusual book. It was originally published in Germany, and won author Andreas Steinhöfel the prestigious German Youth Literature Prize (the German equivalent to the Newbery Award) in 2009. It was just published in the US by Scholastic this summer, translated by Chantal Wright.
The Spaghetti Detectives is told from the viewpoint of Rico, whose mother calls him a "child proddity". Rico has developmental difficulties that make it difficult for him to do simple things, like tell left from right, or remember directions. His head "is sometimes as topsy-turvy as a barrel full of lottery balls" (Page 4). Rico lives with his single mother in a small apartment building, and doesn't really have any friends (though a couple of grown-up fellow tenants take an interest in him).
Early in the book, Rico meets Oscar, a small boy who wears a blue bike helmet (for safety) and is an actual child prodigy. Rico and Oscar's quirks seem to fit together well, and the two become friends. Rico and Oscar both end up on the trail of the notorious Mr. 2000, a child kidnapper who has been terrorizing Berlin for 3 months. It's quite a challenge for a boy who has difficulty thinking clearly and a boy who is small and physically fearful to catch a real kidnapper. But Oscar and Rico are pretty determined kids.
Rico's voice is entertaining and witty, though you also feel for him and his memory holes and "lottery balls." Here's an example:
"I went out of the shop. There was a light wind moving the leaves on the trees in the street--I've forgotten what they're called, or I never knew, but they look great. The bark on their trunks peels off like varnish on an old door and underneath you can see lighter bark that's also peeling off, and more underneath that. You have to ask yourself it does that all the way through." (Page 18)
In another instance, someone asks Rico: "Give me five." Here's Rico's response:
"I pushed my chair back, stood up, quickly said goodbye, and left. If he was about to move on to math, that would ruin everything." (Page 38)
As Rico encounters words that he doesn't understand, he looks them up. But his resulting definitions, shown in a separate font, are as quirky as he is. Like this (after Oscar apologizes to Rico for being arrogant):
"ARROGANT: When somebody looks down on somebody else. So Oscar can't be all that smart because at the end of the day he's a lot smaller than I am and has to keep looking up at me." (Page 24)
Rico and Oscar have a fun dynamic, not quite understanding one another, wanting to be friends, but (as boys will) insulting each other, too.
Wright's translation is utterly seamless. Young readers unfamiliar with German place names could almost read The Spaghetti Detectives straight through without even guessing that it doesn't take place in the US. There's hardly anything in the translation to trip up the unsuspecting young reader - very little terminology that requires additional explanation (beyond a few references to the Euro). Rico's perspective as a "proddity" is so unique that it's not a matter or whether he seems German or American. He just seems different. Funny and likable, but undeniably different.
My one concern with this book is age range. The Spaghetti Detectives is a slim book with a happy-go-lucky, cartoon-like cover and a fun title. I expected it to be an early chapter book, not an easy reader, but more a book for 3rd or 4th graders than 6th graders, say. But the slimness is deceptive. We learn early in the book of a kidnapper who has threatened to send children back to their parents in small pieces. Rico's mom works overnight in a nightclub, and is clearly a looker. Rico spends nights (and even several days in a row) in his apartment alone, though a neighbor keeps a loose eye on him. So ... not so much a book for brand new readers, I don't think. I would still classify it as middle grade - mature things are more implied than stated. I just worry a little that it looks like it's for even younger kids.
But that's more a marketing point than a comment on the book itself. And The Spaghetti Detectives would make an excellent choice for older kids who have reading difficulties. Or for prodigies. Or for anyone who sometimes finds life difficult.
The Spaghetti Detectives is a book that I hope lots of kids will find. It's a middle grade buddy story with a real mystery at its core. The plotting relies a tiny bit on coincidence, but not grievously so. And the engaging protagonists are not to be missed. I would like to see Rico and Oscar have many more adventures. Highly recommended for middle grade readers (and their parents).
Publisher: The Chicken House (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: July 1, 2011 (US publication date, the book was originally published in Germany)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.