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George Edward Stanley (1942-) - Sidelights

review series writing mystery

An extraordinarily prolific writer, George Edward Stanley has also found time to travel and teach, drawing many of the plots for his books from his diverse experiences and natural curiosity. In addition to penning numerous books under his own name, Stanley has also published under several pseudonyms, including the well-known house pseudonyms Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Bramley, the fictitious authors of the perennially popular "Nancy Drew" and "Hardy Boys" novels, respectively.

"When I was growing up in the small town of Memphis, Texas, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I discovered that I had two passions: mysteries and movies,"- Stanley once told Something about the Author. "I read all the mysteries in the public library and went to all the Saturday afternoon matinees, mainly to see the serials. There were two movie houses in Memphis and I would walk to town several times a week just to see the new movie posters. Since I was allowed to go to the movies only on Saturday afternoons, I missed a lot of the great films of those years, but have since been able to buy video tapes of most of the ones that I never got to see and can now watch them anytime I want to! (I also collect movie posters!). Two of my favorite movies from that period are The Bat and Home Sweet Homicide, because they both have mystery writers as the main characters.

"As I grew older, my interests broadened, of course, and I began studying foreign languages. (Actually, I have always liked anything 'foreign.') In college, I majored in French and Portuguese and minored in German, and I went the route of the typical college professor as far as writing is concerned: I began writing very esoteric articles about linguistics that I doubt many people read.

"When it came time to work on my doctorate, I decided to follow another one of my dreams: going to Africa. I went to South Africa, to the University of Port Elizabeth, to research the problems the Xhosa have learning English and Afrikaans. Following my work in South Africa, I accepted a Fulbright professorship to the University of N'Djamena in Chad, Central Africa. It was there that I began writing fiction (something else I had always wanted to do) and I sold my first radio play to the British Broadcasting World Service in London.

"I grew up reading mysteries and wanting to write mysteries. I never got over Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, or the Hardy Boys. If Nancy Drew had been a forensic scientist, I might be in a different occupation today. But she wasn't and that's why I created Dr. Constance Daniels, head of the Forensic Science laboratory of the Bay City Police Department. Dr. Daniels first appeared in Child Life magazine. Later, I introduced a new, younger character in the series, Marie-Claire Verlaine, and moved the locale to Paris, but the forensic science solutions remained. If I had known someone like Dr. Daniels, or Marie-Claire, when I was studying biology, chemistry, and physics, I might have excelled in science."

Inspired, in part, by these life experiences, Stanley has continued to author books for younger readers. In The Codebreaker Kids he introduces readers to three enterprising kids who start a business encoding and decoding messages for would-be spies. In what School Library Journal reviewer Elaine Knight called an "off-the-wall but very funny spy mystery," the three friends become enmeshed in both sides of tricky situations. Diane Roback's review for Publishers Weekly found the humor far-fetched, but the inclusion of real codes good for the reader in "this fast-paced caper" with "Dinky's careful instructions for using them" a fine embellishment.

Reviewers gave The Italian Spaghetti Mystery higher marks for mystery than humor. Blair Christolon, writing in School Library Journal, found the plot of a private school headmistress and her students'—cum summer performers—search for Mr. Spaghetti Man and his spaghetti-making secret to be "evenly paced and the conclusion clever," despite "primitive sound effects" and "corny" humor. Writing again for Publishers Weekly, Diane Roback declared the book—a sequel to Stanley's The Ukrainian Egg Mystery—"wacky." Hershell Cobwell and the Miraculous Tattoo places a series of crazy events in a different context, illustrating the lengths to which one boy goes to get attention and approval from his peers. A reviewer in Booklist dubbed it "a cautionary tale, filled with zestful humor."

Reviewers have often commented upon Stanley's skill in writing books that are not only engaging, but are also very easy for young readers to complete by themselves, and his "Third Grade Detectives" series is a good example. Mr. Merlin was once a spy, but now he teaches third grade and leads his class in solving simple mysteries. Readers can follow the clues through each short, illustrated chapter book, attempting to solve the mystery before the characters do, and there are also simple codes and riddles for the reader to decipher as well. The types of mysteries that the children solve vary widely, including some actual crimes. The puzzle of the series' first book, The Clue of the Left-handed Envelope, though, is not so serious. This time, the class's job is to figure out who sent classmate Amber Lee a secret admirer letter. They succeed, with the assistance of Mr. Merlin's helpful friend, Dr. Smiley, a forensic scientist working in a police lab.The second book of the "Third Grade Detectives" series, The Puzzle of the Pretty Pink Handkerchief, finds the children trying to discover who trespassed in Todd's treehouse and left the titular pink handkerchief there. Todd is also the victim in The Cobweb Confession, when his baseball card collection disappears. Todd's friend Noelle is at the center of other volumes, including The Mystery of the Hairy Tomatoes, in which her dog is wrongly accused of digging in Mrs. Ruston's vegetable garden. The two work together on solving serious, adult crimes in the volumes The Case of the Sweaty Bank Robber and The Mystery of the Stolen Statue.

In The Case of the Dirty Clue, Mr. Merlin's students want to know who ran over Misty's brand new bike. The bike is covered with their best clue: an unusual red soil, left there by the car that hit it. With Mr. Merlin's help, they discover that this type of soil comes from Arizona, leading them to the offending car and its driver. Critics also praised this entry in the series; School Library Journal contributor Andrea Tarr noted the "believable characters and . . . fast-paced plot," while Booklist's Hazel Rochman thought that "as always in this series . . . readers will enjoy the puzzles and the forensics."Continuing the "Third Grade Detectives" series, The Cobweb Confession also shares another feature common to many of Stanley's books: children overcoming their fears, particularly of creepy-crawly animals. This theme reappears in the non-series book Snake Camp. Stevie's parents send him to "Viper" camp, thinking that Viper is a computer program. But it isn't: the camp features real snakes—and Stevie hates snakes. By the end of the book, though, one of the reptiles has stolen Stevie's heart and becomes his pet. "The plot is decidedly contrived," Hazel Rochman commented in Booklist, "but the hissing, slimy, scaly stuff is fun."

"There was a long period of time in my life when I wrote only one short story a month," Stanley once recalled to SATA. "Looking back on that period now, I can't honestly tell you why that's all I did, but it was, and I was perfectly satisfied. It filled my need to be a published writer, but the need then probably wasn't as great as it has since become, and I think that's a normal development. We develop into writers. For some of us it's absolutely necessary that we take it easy and let ourselves evolve into writers. I used to wonder how some of my friends wrote several different stories and books at the same time. I thought I'd never be able to do that, but I was able, and I am able.

"As I developed, I got to the point where I began getting ideas for other stories and other series and other characters. I'd been working long enough with some of my editors that I felt quite comfortable in suggesting these new ideas to them. Some of them were accepted. Some weren't. Some even became the basis for entire magazines. At one time, I had seven series running at the same time (some stayed longer in the magazines than others), but soon the evolutionary process took over and I got to the point where I wanted to write books, too."

One area Stanley explored was the story meant to be read aloud. In the case of Rats in the Attic: And Other Stories to Make Your Skin Crawl, the best place for reading is suggested to be a campfire. Reviewer Larry Prater predicted in Kliatt that "middle schoolers will . . . revel in the soft-core gore and mayhem" of the stories, which involve kids who flirt with danger and the supernatural and pay dearly.

Stanley also shared his views about the role of an children' book author. "Writing for young people carries with it a great responsibility. Some young person is actually going to read what you've written and be influenced by it. Keeping this in mind can be helpful because it makes you want to put your best foot forward and produce not only something that you'll be proud of, but something that the young reader will never forget, whether it carries a lesson for life or simply recounts an exciting adventure.

"It's very important that you perceive yourself as a young person; this is one of the secrets of writing for them. You have to live what he is living and feel what he is feeling. You have to understand a young person's emotions, fears, disappointments, triumphs. You have to understand what it means to score that soccer goal or not to score it. You have to understand what it means to make one hundred percent on a spelling quiz. You have to understand what it means not to understand math. You have to understand what it means not to be able to play football, either because you're too small or because your parents won't let you. You have to understand what it means to have to wait for Christmas or a birthday party. You almost have to become the character you're writing about.

"One of the great things about writing for young people is that they're interested in learning about everything. This can't help but inspire the writer to reach greater heights. You want to teach them, to entertain them, to make them read what you've written. It's quite mind-boggling, frankly, when they come up to you and tell you that they really enjoy reading your stories.


"I very much dislike a lot of what is being written today for children. I think most children are looking for something that will excite them and carry them off to other worlds. They can see enough realism on the nightly news to last them a lifetime. Give them something they can look forward to, something that will stir their sense of adventure and make them want to become the best in whatever they finally end up doing. But don't forget to make them laugh!"


Stanley combines adventure and the required dose of humor in his "Scaredy Cat" series, which includes The Day the Ants Got Really Mad. Intended for children of early-grade-school age, the book tells how Michael, a boy about the same age, copes with the discovery that his family's home is built on the world's largest anthill. Maura Bresnahan, in her review for School Library Journal, wrote that Stanley's informative story about ants "combines humor and a semi-scary situation" in a way "children will find immensely entertaining."


"I spend my spare time reading, learning new languages, watching foreign films, and just trying to keep my head above the water," Stanley explained. "My wife tells me that I can't relax; actually, I'm relaxing when I'm busy. It's when I'm not busy that I start getting uptight!"

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 1991, review of Hershell Cobwell and the Miraculous Tattoo; April 1, 1996, p. 1366; December, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Snake Camp, p. 727; May 1, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Secret of the Green Skin, pp. 1529-1530; February 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The Case of the Dirty Clue, p. 977.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999, p. 1139.

Kliatt, May, 1995, Larry W. Prater, review of Rats in the Attic: And Other Stories to Make Your Skin Crawl, pp. 18-19.

Library Journal, April 1, 1987, p. 145.

Publishers Weekly, January 16, 1987, Diane Roback, review of The Italian Spaghetti Mystery, p. 74; May 8, 1987, Diane Roback, review of The Codebreaker Kids, p. 71.

School Library Journal, August, 1986, Maura Bresnahan, review of The Day the Ants Got Really Mad, p. 130; June-July, 1987, Blair Christolon, review of The Italian Spaghetti Mystery, p. 101; September, 1987, Elaine E. Knight, review of The Codebreaker Kids, p. 183; June, 1997, p. 101; March, 2001, Maura Bresnahan, review of Ghost Horse, p. 205; March, 2003, John Sigwald, review of The Riddle of the Stolen Sand, pp. 207-208; August, 2003, Pat Leach, review of The Secret of the Green Skin, p. 144; January, 2004, Andrea Tarr, review of The Case of the Dirty Clue, p. 107.


ONLINE

George Stanley's Home Page, http://www.cameron.edu/~georges (January 26, 2005).

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