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MG Moment (Book Review): Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner is a contemporary mystery with a touch of history (in the form of historical facts), just perfect for middle grade students and younger tweens.

Anna, Jose and Henry (7th graders) don’t meet each other at a special reception for THE flag that inspired the writing of “Star Spangled Banner”.  They do, however, meet each other the next day when they are all snowed in at the airport.  And it turns out they all have something in common, their ancestors all played a part in history and their family is part of a secret society that has pledged to protect important works of art and history.

While stranded at the airport the news breaks in to announce that the flag was stolen from the Smithsonian museum.  What are three resourceful – and bored – kids supposed to do while stranded at the airport?  Why try and find the flag of course.  Could the flag be at the airport? 

At the airport Anna, Jose and Henry meet a variety of characters, and potential suspects, including a senator running for president, a young boy and his very hungry dog, and a whole orchestra who played at the museum the night before.

Capture the Flag in essence becomes a locked room mystery, with an airport full of suspects and some adventure through the baggage claim area.  In tone it reminded of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (a childhood favorite).  There are touches of humor, breadcrumbs of clues, and a mild dash of intrigue.

In order to get a tween perspective (my tween is 10), my family read this book at night as a read aloud and all of us enjoyed it.  The adults figured out the whodunit and why fairly early in the book but the tween did not and it kept her guessing.  One of the biggest issues we  had was one of the characters name is Senator Snickerbottom; every time I read the name the tween started snickering and The Mr. ultimately asked me to stop reading the name out loud because he just felt it was too absurd, but the tween and I got the humor Messner was going for and felt it worked.  Wimpy Kid and Origami Yoda fans will also be tickled by some of the drawings inside the book by Sinan, a younger boy travelling with the orchestra, as he tries to learn common American sayings like “scapegoat” and “we bit off more than we can chew.”

In the past, Stephanie and I have complained about the whiteout of characters of in MG and YAlit.  In Capture the Flag, Messner presents a strong female (Anna), a Hispanic boy (Jose) and an African American boy (Henry); here is a diverse cast that reflects a large variety of our kids in healthy, respectful ways.  Jose makes mention of stereotypes about Latino characters and immigration policies, but for the most part Messner presents a well-rounded cast of characters where race is not an issue.  Each character has their own strengths and passions, including reading and playing video games, that helps the group solve the mystery.  In fact, the stereotype that most bothered me is that of the video game playing boy, but eventually even his game playing becomes an asset. My favorite part: a backpack full of Harry Potter books helps to save the day!  As a parent and librarian, I appreciated that the kids were presented as intelligent and I loved that Jose collected quotes (I do too).

Capture the Flag has a nice balance between historical facts learned, mystery elements, character development and dashes of humor.  The mystery is a slow start and could use a few more potential suspects for more sophisticated readers, but it seemed to be the perfect read for young tweens.  3.5 stars out of 5 and recommended for elementary and middle school libraries and collections.  Definitely pair this with The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and add in some good old fashioned Encyclopedia Brown.  There is what many would consider to be a “safe” or clean read.

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner is published by Scholastic.  ISBN: 978-0-545-39539-7