CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 15 . . . .April 1, 2005
The above quotation from Roy MacGregor's Danger in Dinosaur Valley, Number 10 in "The Screech Owl" series, shows the strengths and the weaknesses of these short novels. The winning formula is a combination of hockey, Canadian locales, and a different mystery in each book. Douglas Gibson at McClelland and Stewart came up with the idea for the series as a result of requests from teachers and parents for material for "reluctant readers," boys nine to thirteen, who complained that there was nothing available that they liked. Gibson asked author Roy MacGregor to begin the series, which has just concluded with volume 20.
The main characters, mentioned above, are members of the Screech Owls hockey team, and the series' action moves to various locales across Canada and around the world as the children travel to tournaments or hockey camps.
In Danger in Dinosaur Valley, the Screech Owls go to Drumheller, Alberta, to Camp Victory, a program run by a sports psychologist. His unusual ideas on how to build a better team run counter to the teamwork practiced by the Screech Owls. Weirder still is the experience that Nish, another teammate, undergoes while mountain biking. He claims he was almost eaten by a dinosaur, and his story makes international news.
The West Coast Murders, Number 12 in the series, concerns a road trip to Vancouver. The team members go whale watching and are horrified to spot two bodies, one a dolphin, the other a man, in the water. The plot involves a marine biologist with the Vancouver aquarium who wants funding to campaign against gill nets, a leading cause of dolphin deaths. He helps drug smugglers land drugs in Canada in return for money for animal welfare agencies. How were the drugs then to be smuggled into the United States? Through "mules"—in this case, a pee wee hockey team!
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," I kept telling myself when pondering these two novels. The series obviously entertains and instructs reluctant readers. Twelve-year-old boys give them an enthusiastic thumbs-up in internet reviews. Children visit the Screech Owl web-page and write to Roy MacGregor about their favourite characters. There has been talk of a TV series. So who am I to complain?
As an experienced reader, I was jarred by the "information dumps" about wonderful regions of Canada, but these passages probably don't trouble students nine to twelve, who are exposed to non-fiction in textbooks and who don't distinguish between instructional prose and writing which leads to "the willing suspension of disbelief."
In The West Coast Murders, the mystery is not revealed by the action of the story but is explained in a three page newspaper-like summary at the end.
None of the characters is what E.M. Forster would call "round", but, in a novel this length, with an entire team of protagonists, maybe that's asking too much. In reading other novels for young people, however, I have no trouble finding a character to relate to, follow, and cheer for.
Some novels, like the Nancy Drews of my girlhood and the category romances devoured by some of my acquaintances, fulfil a need but are not literature.
"At least they're reading something!" I can hear teachers say. Will Screech Owl aficionados move onward and upwards to deeper works of literature? Who knows? I eventually got bored with Nancy Drew. These days, I read the occasional genre work, like Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine suspense novels, but prefer non-category adult fiction. I would like to think that the "Screech Owls" series will point reluctant readers towards something other than action-adventure movies later in life.
Ruth Latta's published books are listed on her website www.cyberus.ca/~rklatta/RuthLatta.html
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.