An Accidental Adventure: Anthropology for Kids

Geek Culture

The relationship I have with the Magic Tree House series of books can’t exactly be called love/hate, more like love/mildly irritated. First of all, they are fantastic for kids who read at about a third grade level. Mary Pope Osborne has created snappy, quick stories which are full of the kind of simple adventures grade school minds crave. Most importantly to this old history major, The Magic Tree House taught my children to understand history as the stories of people who lived in the past, not a random bunch of facts. The great San Francisco earthquake and the sinking of the Titanic are about people, not dates. Wonderful stuff! To this day, my twelve year old loves historical fiction. Recently, she has returned from her school library with both The Help and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Some credit needs to go to Mary Pope Osborne and her series of books. (Some credit also needs to go to Ann Smith at Roosevelt Elementary as well as the awesome teachers at Hough Elementary in the Vancouver, WA, Public School District, but I digress.)

On the other hand, I find The Magic Treehouse‘s obvious internal marketing ploy irritating. Each masterfully crafted book completes a story and yet leave threads of a supposed overarching narrative unsolved. The reader is never allowed a full catharsis. You start reading at book one expecting at some point everything will be resolved and it never is… OK, I confess, I gave up before I completed the 48 book series. So I have no idea if there was ever any real resolution. My children eventually gave up as well. It felt a bit like watching Twin Peaks or the X-Files all over again, twisted threads and layered subplots which the author doesn’t care to resolve. As long as it lasts, it can be a great way to sell product. Just tease us, and tease us, and tease us until one day we wake up and say, “Hey, you’re just teasing me! Aren’t you?”

So by the end of We Are Not Eaten by Yaks, book one in the Accidental Adventure series, I was concerned. I found out about the series from my nine year old, who forced the book into my hands saying, “You have to read this!” Wanting to know more about what she found compelling, I plunged in. It all felt eerily familiar. Excellent writing, quick dialogue, adventures tinged with magic and the unexplained, and there were those unresolved plot threads dangling in the breeze, demanding that I pick up the next book.

“Uh Oh!” I thought. “Did I just sign us up for another subscription service?” A quick email to the publicist reassured me this would be different. The Accidental Adventure series by C. Alexander London is a planned four book series. No endless marketing campaign here. There are other differences here as well.

First of all, Celia and Oliver from the Accidental Adventure series are not Annie and Jack from The Magic Tree House. They are more stretched and cartoon-like in their choices and ideas. This fits with the whole tenor of the books, which has a much more Saturday morning cartoon feel to it than does the Magic Tree House, which tends to play everything a bit straight. An Accidental Adventure can be quite funny. There is a hilarious scene at the beginning of the second book, We Dine With Cannibals, in which Oliver talks to himself about the the difference between Llamas and Lamas while facing a difficult and scary task he doesn’t want to think about. I laughed out loud.

In both series there are semi-mystical guides who show up from time-to-time to assist the young adventurers. Without giving too much away, let me just say the relationship between the Navel twins and their guide in the Accidental Adventure series is a bit fraught. Despite the cartoon nature of the physics and the characters, as a parent, I wasn’t sure I liked this part of the Accidental Adventure series. (It was especially this dangling plot thread which prompted my email to the publicist. It needs resolution.) The second book, We Dine With Cannibals helped. I was reassured by a scene which takes place in a moldy bedroom in the Amazon jungle late in the book which reveals the heart of their guide and the difficulty they had in making their choices. It seems important to me that grade schoolers believe the adults who guide them are at least somewhat trustworthy and actually care about them. (Within a few short years, nature itself will cause a grade school child to have a bit of an existential crisis here — no need to introduce it early.)

Finally, The Magic Tree House has an historical sensibility, taking children to the past to learn about different ways of life. An Accidental Adventure teaches kids about differences between people through the lens of anthropology. Celia and Oliver are the twin children of world famous explorers, and their adventures take place around the world in the present. They (literally) drop into different cultures around the globe and along the way learn a little about local food, customs and religion. All of these adventures are tied together by the overarching quest. To my mind, these books remind me of the story a grade schooler might imagine as they looked at the pictures in a National Geographic Magazine. As a parent, that is fantastic. If Alexander London can pique my kid’s interest in learning about different cultures, I am all for it.

At about 350 pages of easy to read print, each book in the Accidental Adventure series is somewhat longer than those in the Magic Tree House series. For kids who loved that series but are ready for a bigger challenge, they make a great follow up. I know I am looking forward to June when Celia and Oliver Give a Squid a Wedgie.

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