“It started with a kidnapping,” the book’s official description goes. “A shadowy organization known only as the Vespers snatched seven members of the Cahill family and demanded a series of bizarre ransoms from around the world.” It sounds like the latest from bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci. It is – but it’s published for eight to 12-year-olds.
The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers: Day of Doom is the newest entry in the popular kid’s series and Baldacci doesn’t hesitate to employ the adrenaline and high-stakes, explosive suspense he’s known for in his books for adults. In Day of Doom, 13-year-old Dan Cahill and his older sister Amy embark on a global treasure hunt, determined to bring back whatever Vesper One needs, so long as it keeps the hostages safe. But when they deliver the last ransom, Amy and Dan discover Vesper One’s creepy endgame: The objects he demanded are vital pieces in a Vesper plot that will harm millions of innocent people.
The 39 Clues series is notable for the stellar roster of kid’s writers who’ve written one or another of the series’ many volumes. Rick Riordan started the whole thing off with The Maze of Bones; since then, Linda Sue Park, Patrick Carman, and Roland Smith, among others, have kept the story kicking.
But Baldacci is the first adult writer to contribute to the series and he is arguably the most recognizable name of any of the series’ writers. So why is a writer who has a loyal adult readership writing for tweens? “I was surprised,” Baldacci acknowledges, when Scholastic, the 39 Clues’ publisher, asked him if he’d be interested in contributing.
“We wanted to do something new and unexpected and keep the fans guessing,” says Rachel Griffiths, the executive editor at Scholastic who oversees The 39 Clues. “I knew he had had some kid characters, in First Family in particular, and he just really got into that kid mentality.” Her primary question about Baldacci was, “Can you write for middle graders and can you get into a kid’s perspective in a realistic way?”
She felt that he could, so Scholastic invited him to New York to talk about the idea. “If I’m going to do this, I need to set some parameters,” Baldacci told them at the meeting. He had specific questions about what he would and would not be allowed to do to the characters in the series. “Can I kill people?” he asked. “Yeah, people have died in the previous books,” Baldacci says Scholastic told him. “Is there any one I can’t kill?” he wanted to know. “Well, the sister and brother have been in each book, so they probably should stay in,” they replied. “Can I maim them?” he asked, which is when he says everyone at Scholastic “looked around at each other like they had make the wrong choice.”
“We hoped he was joking,” Griffiths recalls. (He was.) “Obviously our intention is to thrill kids, not send them to their inhalers.”
“The fun thing for me was how seriously he took” the assignment, Griffiths says. “He’s really deadline oriented, which I wish some of my other writers would be.”
Baldacci says he didn’t dumb things down writing for kids instead of adults (Baldacci’s next adult thriller, The Hit, will be released on April 23rd.) Even though he didn’t simplify the plot of Day of Doom just because tweens are reading it doesn’t mean he could write like he does for adults, however. “What thrilled kids 10 years ago doesn’t today,” he points out. He remembered the day he caught his kids watching Jaws when they were the age that Day of Doom is intended for. They were laughing at it; they though it was silly, Baldacci recalls. But Jaws “put me in therapy because I was 16 when I saw that,” he jokes. The threshold of what’s terrifying to children has shifted. “You have to have twists and turns and make it intricate,” Baldacci explains about writing for kids. “The dialogue had to be tailored for a younger audience.” But once he was sitting at his desk writing, “it was just telling a compelling story – much like you’re writing for an adult.”
Scholastic and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will stream a webcast today featuring Baldacci at 1pm ET/10am PT about the elements of American history that appear in Day of Doom. The webcast will be archived for later viewing.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.