One-Minute Book Reviews

March 24, 2012

‘Nate the Great’ Turns 40 / A 9-Year-Old Sleuth With Enduring Appeal

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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.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 23, 2012

‘Nate the Great,’ Boy Detective — Tomorrow

Nate the Great wears a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And for decades the 9-year-old sleuth has been the hero of the first mysteries that many children read on their own, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s popular series of easy-readers for ages 5 through 8 that bears his name. Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews: clues to his success in a review of the book that launched his adventures.

May 16, 2009

Good Clean Limericks for Children – Poems for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Graders

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear

Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.

The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.

But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at, including:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work

A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).

Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.

© 2009 Janice Harayda

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