Steve Rosson on an ever-popular pastime
I’ve always been a sucker for puzzles. The first ones I can remember were the picture crosswords in the London Evening News and I even enjoyed ploughing through the books of verbal and non-verbal reading tests that dear old Mrs Lugg persuaded my parents to buy in order to give me some practice for the 11+. Solving the Mensa ads always gives my ego a boost though I realise it means absolutely nothing – and I’ve sometimes been known to stock up for the summer holiday in the sun with some of the huge range of puzzle books now available from the bottom shelf of the newsagents. So what did I make of the children’s puzzle books I was sent for review?
Usborne Publishing are the major players in this field and this year are celebrating their 10th Anniversary of puzzling with a special competition which it’s not too late for kids to enter. ‘Young Puzzles’ are aimed at 4-year-olds and upwards, though the one I was sent – Puzzle Journey Through Time – seemed to be more suitable for 8-year-olds. I thought this was rather fun with its strip cartoon format. Matt and Lou time travel to a Viking village, Ancient Rome, The Middle Ages and sundry other times doing battle with a baddie from the future called Anna Kranism (they go in a lot for punning names at Usborne). The drawings were historically accurate, apart from the intentional plants, but the puzzles were rather feeble being based largely on close observation of the pictures with a couple of map questions involving following instructions.
‘Young Puzzle Adventures’ are again aimed at the 4-7 year-old range with the emphasis that these are books than can be shared by children and adults together. 30-odd pages of cosy story with large, competent, but inspiring, colour illustrations. Each double-page spread has a puzzle to solve. There are five of these in print at the moment compared with 25 of the ‘Puzzle Adventures’ for 8-13 year-olds. Think of a setting or a theme for a mystery story and it’s here somewhere – sunken cities, lost temples, castles, haunted towers, pirates, jungles, smuggling, etc, etc, etc. Lots of cartoon drawings, again with a puzzle on each double-page – codes, maps, mazes, number games, picture observation and such – with a page of clues at the back followed by the solutions. For the real fan there are three ‘Advanced’ level adventures with much more difficult puzzles to crack.
Now with all these series you don’t actually have to solve the puzzle in order to continue with the story – which has the advantage that you do get to finish the book, along with the disadvantage that there’s no real incentive to stick at any of the puzzles. ‘Whodunnits’, of which there are three in print, adopt a different approach altogether. Aimed at the 9+ age group, there is a lot more reading to be done both in the narrative itself and a range of other types of writing such as newspaper cuttings, reporters’ notebooks, magazine articles, letters and so on. Numbered magnifying glass symbols are placed at critical points in the plot to direct the reader to more careful study and the solution is explained in mirror print at the back to deter any sneaky cheating. The Missing Clue revolves around the cast of a US soap opera in the run-up to the Bravo awards. Dirty work is afoot in a hugely complex plot but all is solved by young Jack who’s won a week as a trainee reporter covering the showbiz scene – and solved by you too if you follow all the clues. I’d like to meet the 9-year-old who can crack it.
Usborne have given their illustrators some time off for the ‘Solve It Yourself’ series (three out by the end of the year). This time you get close-up photographs of everyday messes – the victim’s desk, the front seat of a car, the spilled out contents of a handbag – and here again it’s close observation of the picture and linking of clues that are needed.
They’re very proud of their puzzle books at Usborne and tell me they ‘can’t get them out fast enough’ to satisfy the demand, though I have to say I was disappointed by them. All the books are well-produced with lots of colour on well designed pages but for me they fall between two stools. They’re not good stories as the need to progress a double page at a time imposes a wholly artificial structure on them and the puzzles play no part whatsoever in the development of the plot. Using the acid test of ‘Would you want to read these books again?’ the answer would be a resounding ‘No’. I think I’ll stick to the bottom shelf at my newsagent.
Mind you, that’s only my adult opinion. All the evidence suggests a very different response from the children … so that’s another puzzle to solve.
Details of titles mentioned:
Puzzle Journey Through Time, Usborne, 0 7460 1657 3, £5.99; 0 7460 1666 5, £3.99 pbk
The Missing Clue, Usborne, 0 7460 0599 7, £4.99; 0 7460 0598 9, £3.50 pbk
For information about the 10th Anniversary Competition, write to Usborne Publishing, 83/85 Saffron Hill, London EC1N 8RT.