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"The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill" by Megan Frazer Blakemore



I put the wrong label on The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore.

In bookstores, adult books are separated by genre. This is fine. And it’s fine in the adult sections of libraries. But most of us don’t do that in the children’s section because we don’t want to limit what our kids read. If you group all the mysteries and separate them from the pack, you’re already telling some kids, oh, you don’t want to read these! Instead, we want kids to browse the stacks. We want them to make discoveries. 

Sometimes, though, they are assigned a type of book (historical fiction or mystery or science fiction) to read and report on. And, so, to make life easier in those cases, we (children’s librarians) have little genre stickers for book spines. I like to get the genre right. 

On the title page verso (fancy name for the page that has publisher’s info), publishers will often do some cataloging and list the book’s subjects. The good people at Bloomsbury Children’s Books gave The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill several subject headings and the first is “Mystery and detective stories.” So I put a mystery label on the spine. But, alas, I’ve read the book and it’s not a mystery at all. Today I covered up the mystery sticker (it’s a devil to peel off one of these stickers once they’re stuck) with historical fiction and I feel better.

The Spy Catchers is a good book. It takes place in 1953 in a small Vermont town. Hazel Kaplansky, the protagonist, is described by some as “relentless” and “a little spitfire,” but she’s lonely. An outcast at her school because her parents run the local cemetery and she plays there most afternoons (even talking to the monuments), she’s also a bit of an outcast at home because her parents don’t seem to pay much attention to her.  Oh, she’s also the smartest girl in her class and loves the library, which just adds to her differentness. When Randall Butler moves to town and outdoes her in class she fears the one thing that kept her happy in school – being brighter than everyone else – will disappear.

Instead, though, she and Randall become best friends. Randall is lonely too. Over the course of the novel we find out that he was taken away from his mother and sent to live with his grandmother because his mother is an alcoholic. She also never married Randall’s father, who died during World War II. 

Some might compare spunky Hazel to Ramona or, as many reviewers did, Harriet the Spy. She’s also a bit like Jane Austen’s Emma in her inability to see past her own nose, while thinking she does. For most of the novel, Hazel is sure she has stumbled upon a communist spy ring. When McCarthyism rears its ugly head in the town, Hazel is doubly certain she is right. She’s not, of course.

I like the way Blakemore has packed so much into this narrative: lonely children, mean girls, friendship, the way lies and rumors can hurt people, the Cold War, and even the changing roles of women (Hazel’s mom was going to go to graduate school, but she couldn’t have a career and a child and chose to be a mom). And none of it seems forced. I think it’s because Hazel is likeable and often funny. There’s no didacticism and that is always a plus in a children’s novel. (For kids in 4th-6th grades.)

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