A confident young “detective” loves solving cases and eating pancakes
Nate the Great. By Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Pictures by Marc Simont. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 64 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 5–8.
By Janice Harayda
For 40 years, the 9-year-old detective who calls himself “Nate the Great” has been striding confidently forth to solve crimes dressed in a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And there’s no mystery about why he remains one of the most popular heroes of the beginning-reader genre.
Sharmat was among the first authors to show that books with a limited vocabulary don’t have to be as dull as the Dick-and-Jane primers that set their tone for years. Nate has personality. He is cool, methodical and self-assured without being rude. And he’s funny. Sharmat writes in the deadpan tone of hard-boiled detective novels and invests her hero with the mannerisms of their sleuths. “My name is Nate the Great,” Nate announces in the first sentence of Nate the Great. “I am a detective. I work alone.”
That “I work alone” is typical of how Sharmat invokes the solitary American private eye with wit and accuracy. Nate solves “cases” instead of crimes: Who taped the red paper heart to Sludge’s doghouse? Who is raiding his friend Oliver’s garbage? What happened to the birthday gift that fell off the cat-loving Rosamond’s sled?
Nate helps his friend Annie find a missing picture of her dog, Fang, in Nate the Great. He works not by deduction (forming a theory and testing it) like Holmes but mostly by intuition and induction (gathering evidence until he has a theory). When he learns that Annie’s house has no secret passageways he can explore, he seeks clues by other means — searching her room, digging in her yard, and talking with her brother. He stops briefly to fill up on pancakes because “I must keep up my strength.”
The plot of Nate the Great has enough action to work either for independent reading by children or for reading aloud by adults. And Marc Simont’s witty line drawings suggest the range of emotions that accompany his hero’s bravado. His Nate is alternately as tight-lipped as Sam Spade and as expressive as any 9-year-old, an unusual and well-balanced combination that helps to give the series its enduring appeal.
Some might argue that Nate the Great reflects traditional sex roles in words and pictures that show a boy helping a girl who couldn’t find a picture on her own. But those roles reflect both the era in which the novel arrived and the crime fiction that inspired it. By the standards of the hard-boiled novels of its day, the story is actually progressive. Nate and Annie are friends apart from the case that brought them together. How many fictional gumshoes, even today, spend most of their time in the company of a female friend in whom they have no romantic interest?
Best line/picture: No. 1: “I work alone.” No. 2: “I would like Annie if I liked girls.”
Worst line/picture: None. But in the well-used 1972 library edition I read, one page describes a clown, house and tree as “red” and a monster as “orange” when the colors appear indistinguishable, possibly because of fading.
Recommended for: First and second graders who are beginning to read and for reading aloud to younger children.
Published: 1972 (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, first edition), 1977 (Yearling/Dell reprint).
Want to wish Nate a happy 40th birthday? Write to Marjorie Weinman Sharmat c/o Author Mail, Delacorte Press, Dell Publishing, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
Furthermore: Nate has inspired a musical and more.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.