No, that’s not a typo. Graeme Base’s newest book Enigma can teach kids about cryptography, but it deserves an extra "crypto" for the clever way the subject is hidden in a story about magic, friendship, and family. Bertie Badger visits his grandfather, the retired magician Gadzooks the Great, and learns that he and the other residents have all lost their magical items. Bertie offers to search for them, meeting each of the quirky ex-tricksters in turn. The search itself is fruitless, even after the perpetrator (Grandfather’s rabbit Enigma) is found, but Bertie saves the day by showing where true magic comes from.
On the surface, the book is a series of poetic character studies, each illustrated with rich, beautiful artwork. Each of the magicians is given a two-page spread, with lots of detail to talk about. (…or chuckle over. Mystress Hypnosis the camel? Lord Pandamonium?) I love reading these books aloud, because the poetry is as much a pleasure as the art. (The geeklet runs around saying "Pollyanna Parrapoup" just for the sound of it.)
Of course, anyone who has read Graeme Base knows that the best parts are below the surface. Each page has its retinue of hidden images, some of which are clues, some visual puns, and some of which are just plain fun. Best of all, Enigma declares that he wrote down all the locations of the missing items, but in a code he no longer remembers. The secret to the code is in the back of the book: a machine with three dials and… well, you see where this is going.
Cracking the code adds a whole new layer to the book. If my late night of decoding text and poring over the illustrations is any indication, then the book’s intended audience (the 9-to-12 set) should be happily occupied for hours. And then you can get them started on Cryptonomicon…