This past Tuesday the countdown clock at the39clues.com stopped counting down, and the site went live. The 39 Clues is a new series for 8-12-year olds from Scholastic, the company’s first major launch since the end of Harry Potter. Elsewhere on this website I have taken a whack at it.
I felt bad about doing so, because Scholastic had generously taken the trouble to give me access to the series’ editors, and to the author of the first book, Rick Riordan. But the more I thought and wrote about it the weirder I felt about The 39 Clues, and the more I felt like that weirdness had to do with the way the culture and the book industry had changed since 1997, the year Scholastic bought the U.S. rights to Harry Potter.
You can read the plot summary of the series in the main article. (It includes this sentence: “If you forcibly interbred Lemony Snicket and National Treasure and chose the most viable of their mutant offspring you might come up with something like The 39 Clues.”) But basically I felt like the weirdness of The 39 Clues comes in two forms:
— It’s not written by a single author. The concept came from Scholastic, which is hiring a different author to write each book. That way Scholastic can release a book every few months, and control the IP of the series as a whole (after Harry Potter, how can they afford not to?) It gives the books a very safe, eerily normal, generic, engineered feeling. Meh.
— It’s being published in the form of a book. Which comes with trading cards. That you can use to play an online game. Where you can win cash prizes. That you can use to buy merchandise. Scholastic calls this “multi-dimensional publishing,” and I guess that’s how these things are done nowadays. But when I was a boy a book was a book. And changing the medium does in fact change the message.
And I wasn’t sure I liked the message.