Middle Grade Mondays: We Like Spies

I mentioned before that I’ve been going through an adult fiction (no not THAT kind), reading streak to stretch my perspective and challenge my mind a bit. (and increase my vocabulary, I’ve picked up these words among others: commove, impecunious, and avoirdupois). It feels good, like yoga for the brain.

So, this week I decided to ask some fellow writers (and one husband) what their favourite books were when they were 10. And why.

I’ll start with The Husband, whose favourite book was THE SPY LADY AND THE MUFFIN MAN by Sesyle Joslin. It’s actually the only kids book he owns other than The Places You Will Go (by Dr. Seuss).

imagesNever heard of it? Neither had I. And unfortunately, not many other people have either. It came out in 1971, it’s out of print, and there’s not even an image in GoodReads or Amazon for it.

I read his copy 8 years ago when we exchanged favourite kids books (he read my copy of Phantom Tollbooth).

It’s about four brothers and sisters, the members of the Secret Society For The Detection And Solution Of Crime, who are faced with a dull summer on Cape Cod with their single Dad until the Spy Lady comes to live next door. Of course everything she does is highly mysterious and they make it a point to figure out her evil plans. They’ve got code names and disguises, and the book contains the children’s spy log book and is illustrated by the youngest brother.


I won’t tell you how it turns out, just in case you can get a copy of it. But it’s definitely more Harriet the Spy than Alex Rider. It is Cape Cod after all.

When I asked my husband why he liked the book so much he said, I liked the humour in it. And I loved kids books in which the kids were spies. I don’t think that trend has changed. I think kids still love stories about young sleuths.

Speaking of… Tod McCoy (author and publisher) said that his favourite books were ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE THREE INVESTIGATORS (by William Arden and a few other authors). Thirty books in the series were released between the years 1964 and 1979.  I hadn’t heard of this one either (when I mentioned them to The Husband he said – Oh, I loved those books).

557103According to GoodReads, these classic mystery/adventure stories feature three boys who establish a detective firm with the motto “We Investigate Anything!” In the first book in the series, the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle–home of a long-deceased horror movie actor–and soon find that the place lives up to its name.
Of this series, Tod says: it had almost nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock. Why did he like it? There was just something so cool about having a junkyard all to yourselves, with secret entrances all over the place.

And finally, author friend Jennifer D. Munro (who I will ALWAYS be jealous of for being anthologized in the book The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater – for those who know your Judy Blume), had this to say about one of her favourite childhood book series: the THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

I recently re-read the first Little House on the Prairie and loved it. I learned all kinds of things, like how they made a balloon for the kids out of the pig’s bladder after it was slaughtered, and how Ma at certain times of the year would strain grated carrots to add more color to the butter (at other times of the year, depending on what the cow was eating, the butter was already yellow enough), and how for guests they would buy white granulated sugar instead of the lowbrow brown sugar or natural maple syrup they had. I don’t think I understood any of that when I read it growing up in Hawaii.

At least with Little House, they weren’t missing a parent (or two) like so much kids’ lit. (Nancy Drew and Black Stallion both feature a kid with one dead parent.)

I didn’t see a real prairie until I was 35… Yup, on our cross country motorcycle trip, we ended up by accident on Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

Why would a little girl in Hawaii care about Little House on the Prairie? Because I think it had all of those universal themes, most important of which was how was Santa going to get to them during a record blizzard on Christmas?

I am fairly certain I never read any of the Prairie books. I was, like Tod and The Husband, more into spies. But, perhaps I’ll give them a shot one day. They are classics, after all. Plus I want to find out how to make a balloon from a pig’s bladder.

Are there any old, out of print, hard to find children’s books that were your favourites?



  1. Jennifer D. Munro
    Jan 14, 2013

    Can you believe I’ve never read Judy Blume?

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 14, 2013

      Scandalous! I’m assigning Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret to you right now.

  2. Jennifer D. Munro
    Jan 14, 2013

    I have my dad’s childhood copy of Black Beauty, one of those small, palm-sized books with a hard cover, in which he crossed out, in pencil, the graphic of Black Beauty’s head on the frontispiece. I will always wonder what precipitated that angry slash mark? That he hated the book? Was required to read it but didn’t want to? That the book provoked powerful feelings in him?

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 14, 2013

      Or, he was just being a boy. Boys like to slash things (and burn, crush, throw, rip things as well). I never read Black Beauty. I wasn’t into horse books either as a girl. Although, I do believe I read The Black Stallion.

  3. Eliza
    Jan 14, 2013

    “The Headless Cupid” by Zilpha Keatley Snyder was my favorite, though it’s not particularly hard to find. It’s one of those sneaky, mystery type stories, with hidden passages, ghosts, and a big creaky home. Oh, and a gothy new step-sister, which I think majorly influenced my fashion choices through the following ten (plus) years.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 14, 2013

      Wow, never heard of that one either, Eliza. Or the author. And it looks like she was quite prolific. I should do a reading of kids books from the 70’s.

      I think I would have been really into this book as a kid.

  4. Barbara Watson
    Jan 14, 2013

    So many great books I never even heard of when I was a kid…or now! Finally, as an adult, I read the Little House on the Prairie stories. Love them. And I loved seeing my son read and reread Farmer Boy.

  5. Joanne Fritz
    Jan 14, 2013

    Love this post, Danika. I’ve never heard of The Spy Lady, but I have heard of The Three Investigators, though I didn’t realize Alfred Hitchcock attached his name to the series! And I devoured all of the Little House books, but not until I was in my 20s, ha ha.

    Adored Phantom Tollbooth from 5th grade on. Back then I also loved (and still own a battered copy of) Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. Norwegian kids on sleds hiding gold from the Nazis. What’s not to love?

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 14, 2013

      i have no idea how Hitchcock’s name got attached. Snow Treasure sounds great! Kids on sleds hiding gold from the Nazis… I would have devoured that book as a child.

      I wrote a post about one of my favourite books in elementary school that no one seems to have heard of: I, TRISSY. It’s about a girl whose parents get divorced and her Dad gives her a typewriter (yes, it’s from the 70’s). She spends the entire book typing out her feelings. I thought is was hysterical.

  6. Danika Dinsmore
    Jan 14, 2013

    All right, all right… I will read Little House on the Prairie! Or I guess the first book is called something else. In any case, I was 40 by the time I read Anne of Green Gables, which was another “girly” one I skipped. And I loved it.

  7. Cindy
    Jan 15, 2013

    This is a great post, thanks! I inhaled all the Hardy Boys and do remember the Alfred Hitchcock series. Does anyone remember another series where a group of kids had a super-cool hideout hidden in the piles of junk in a junkyard?

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 15, 2013

      You mean there was a different group of junkyard kids besides the Three Investigators? (which I also never read, but Tod says they hang out in a junkyard.) Didn’t Fat Albert hang out in a junkyard?

      • Cindy
        Jan 15, 2013

        Aha! That must be it. I recognized the cover picture you showed of the Three Investigators and knew I’d read them, but didn’t realize it was the same series as the junkyard hideout! I’ve been trying to remember the name of that series was forever. Now I’ll have to get my hands on a copy and read one again. Thanks for solving my mystery!

  8. kellybarnhill
    Jan 15, 2013

    I read the Spy Lady and the Muffin Man when I was a kid! I have tried to explain that book to people and they treat me like I’m making it up. (This is how it usually goes – Me: “It’s a real book I swear!” Everyone else: “Hmmm-hmmm.) I haven’t laid eyes on a copy since somewhere around fifth grade, but now I feel like I should be on a mission. Surely, I can find a copy from a used book store somewhere on earth, right?

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Jan 15, 2013

      Hi Kelly! You are the only other person I’ve ever met who has heard of this book. The Husband will be happy. I definitely saw some used copies online. It like the extra logs and illustrations, exactly how I kept my records when I was a neighborhood spy.

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