I don’t know how Kate Messner does it. She just keeps coming out with new books of so many different kinds: realistic middle grade, dystopian middle grade, picture books, chapter books, books for teachers, and now the first mystery in a three-book series.
I really enjoyed Messner’s new adventure-mystery Capture the Flag. She sets up a clever premise for the series: her three protagonists, Anna, José, and Henry, are descended from influential artists and craftspeople, and their families are part of the Silver Jaguar Society, whose members protect the world’s most valuable artifacts. When the flag that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner” is stolen, Anna, José, and Henry find themselves snowed in at an airport…along with the perpetrator and the flag. They embark on an exciting adventure to find the thief and recapture the flag.
Yesterday, I began reading this book aloud to my seventh grade students—I think it would be great for fifth and sixth grade students, too, but the seventh grade English/history curriculum at my school focuses on American history so this mystery is an especially good fit. Last week in my review of Liar and Spy, I proposed four elements of an effective read aloud: compelling protagonist and distinctive narrative voice, relatable themes, opportunities for reflection, and opportunities for making inferences. Capture the Flag fulfills all of these criteria for sure.
I have to tweak my first element a little because Capture the Flag really has three protagonists and it isn’t written in first person. But the three main characters, Anna, José, and Henry, are all engaging and distinct. Messner does a nice job of giving them each a defining passion that helps them contribute to solving the mystery: Anna is a determined journalist, Henry is a video game expert, and José is an avid reader who memorizes inspiring quotes. And I like the way Messner sets up the third-person narration. She creates dramatic irony by showing readers the flag theft (which Anna, José, and Henry don’t see) before focusing in on the kids’ perspectives, and she sets up a funny, over-the-top tone when she introduces the Tootsie-Roll-toting Senator Snickerbottom and other larger-than-life characters. This tone prepares readers to dive right into the book’s adventures and suspend their disbelief.
Messner addresses relatable themes—the three main characters have interesting relationships with their family members. (Henry, especially, is grieving for his mom’s death and has to deal with his dad’s remarriage and an upcoming move. Anna, meanwhile, struggles to get her busy, politician father’s attention.) Messner encourages readers to think about big issues such as immigration, racism, and corruption, and she lets readers piece together clues to figure out the mystery.
This is a creative, fun, and fast-paced story that I think my students will really enjoy—I certainly did. I look forward to the next installment in the series!