“The Kids Are All Right” (by Steve Hockensmith)

For the past dozen years, readers of EQMM have been treated, at fairly regular intervals, to the witty tales of Steve Hockensmith, whose subjects have ranged from the Old West to Christmas satire to darker urban crime. Steve is the author of six books set in the Old West, starring Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, his answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  He also penned the New York Times bestselling prequel and sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. More recently, he’s entered the field of children’s mysteries. In fact, he has a new book out today. Titled Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery With Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself (Quirk Books), it’s described by Kirkus Reviews as “Another fast-paced mystery and treat for technophiles.” Like all effective humorists, Steve has his hand on the pulse of our culture—especially Internet culture!—Janet Hutchings

Thanks to the Internet, it’s never been easier to be bummed.

Want to convince yourself that the end is nigh? Just Google “climate change,” “doomsday clock,” or “extinction event”—take your pick! A mere .045 seconds later, you’ll have all the reason you need to abandon all hope.

Want to think the end of the human race might not necessarily be such a bad thing? Choose an online news story at random and start reading the comments. Around the 1,000th exchange of the phrases “libtard” and “Repugnican,” you’ll be praying for an asteroid to smash into the planet.

Want to smother that last little shred of faith in humanity that’s still hiding in your heart? Just click here and try not to throw yourself off a bridge 104 minutes later.

Oh, I know what’ll cheer me up, I hear you say, loyal Ellery Queen reader. A good mystery! You knowa story about someone’s violent death. That’ll chase the blues away!

Well, the Internet’s got a bummer for you, too.

You’re a dinosaur.

Here are some more Google searches for you. “Decline in literacy.” “Americans buying fewer books.” “Children reading less.”

In fact, forget the Googling. Just wait a bit, and the bad news will come to you. Because it seems like someone releases the results of a new, depressing survey of contemporary reading habits about once a week.

Here’s the latest. The gist: According to a Pew Research Center poll, the number of American adults who hadn’t read a single, solitary book in the preceding 12 months was at an all-time high. Twenty-three percent of respondents hadn’t picked up so much as a My Little Pony graphic novel in a whole year!

Now you might say, “The Pew Research Center? I bet their research stinks! HA!”

If you do say this, your comedic talents might best be put to use writing My Little Pony graphic novels. Plus, all I have to do to refute you is trot out recent stats from a source with an unfunny name. Like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, say. Try to work that one into a pun, wisenheimer.

According to the Organization for Economic Yawn Yada Yada, it’s not just our interest in reading that’s declining. It’s our ability. Reading proficiency is falling for most Americans.

Diagnosis: When it comes to reading, we’re getting both lazier and dumber.

Prognosis: DOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!

Or not.

There’s a place we can go for insights that’s not the Internet. You might have heard of it. It’s called The Real World.

No, I’m not talking about the MTV show. The only insight to be found there is “Geez—reality TV has always been horrible, hasn’t it?”

I’m talking about the real Real World. The one writers like me only enter when it’s time to take a break from our computers and get something for lunch.

Or promote a book. That’s what I was doing last month when I went to my daughter’s school to do a talk about Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab, the new middle-grade mystery I co-wrote with educator and TV personality Science Bob Pflugfelder. (“Science Bob” isn’t his given name, of course. That’s just a nickname. His real name is Astrophysics Robert Pflugfelder.)

Our publisher, Quirk Books, had given me a box of copies, and originally I just meant to drop by and hand them out to the kids in my daughter’s fifth-grade class. But then the teacher asked if I’d do a presentation for the whole grade, and I said, “You bet!” (Because saying “Screw that!” to your daughter’s teacher is never a good idea.)

So there I was standing in front of 100 or so ten-year-olds who were super-jazzed to be getting a break from the daily routine. And here’s the thing. When they found out I was there to talk about a book, they stayed jazzed. Then I started my talk with this question:

“How many of you like mysteries?”

Every hand but one went up.

“How many of you like science?”

Every hand but one went up.

“How many of you like building things?”

Every hand but one went up.

“How many of you like fun?”

Every hand but one went up.

(Yes, there was a girl who didn’t like mysteries or science or building things or fun.)

“Great!” I said. “Because the book I’m here to talk about is a mystery with lots of science and building things and fun.”

And I launched into my spiel about how the book’s young heroes use their gizmo-building skills to catch crooks, and blueprints and directions are included so readers can make the gadgets themselves, and being a detective is a lot like using the scientific method to prove or disprove a hypothesis. (I was doing a sales pitch on school property, remember, so I needed to make it sound educational somehow.)

And you know what? They didn’t get bored. They didn’t get antsy. They didn’t start whispering and passing notes and picking their noses. They were into it.

We did a Q&A when my little speech was done, and those kids could have fired questions at me all day. And not just the questions you’d expect, like “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How did you become a writer?” They wanted to know about the projects and the characters and the upcoming sequels. One little guy even asked me what percentage I get of each sale, and when I told him he said, “That’s not very good.” I’m guessing in about 25 years he’ll have his own literary agency.

Of course, one of the questions was, “Where can I get the book?”

“Oh, Books Inc. [our local bookstore], online, wherever they sell books,” I said.

Because I only had enough copies for my daughter’s class, you see. And when we went back to her classroom after my talk and I opened up that box and started pulling out freebies . . . pandemonium! It was a feeding frenzy frantic enough for Shark Week.

Now you might say freebies are freebies. The kids would’ve gone nuts if I’d been handing out Geritol and moist toilettes. But I don’t think so, because I’d seen their eyes light up as I talked about the book. I’d seen their enthusiasm as they threw their hands in the air with a “Pick me! Pick me!” zeal worthy of Arnold Horshack. I’d heard their gasps and seen their grins when I said that the next Nick and Tesla book was about robots . . . and, yes, there’d be directions for building your own. And the next day—the very next day!—my daughter brought home two notes from classmates that said the same thing.

Thank you for the book. I loved it.

Is all this a testament to my awesome powers of persuasion and magnetic, cult-ready personality? Nope. It’s a testament to our kids.

Make science and reading fun—with a double dose of mystery and humor, say—and they will put down their iPads and pick up a book. Which bodes well for the future of our nation, I think. There are still going to be readers here, because there are still going to be smart, curious people.

So, books? Not going away.

The mystery genre? Not going away.

Mystery short stories? Well . . .

I might still be a little worried about that one. Here’s hoping whoever writes the next column convinces me that the future’s so bright we’ll have to wear shades (and not because the ozone layer’s gone).

Hey—I can’t be the only one with something optimistic to say on the Internet.

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6 Responses to “The Kids Are All Right” (by Steve Hockensmith)

  1. Real world trumps virtual hyperbole every time! Great post, Steve!

  2. Wally Hettle says:

    Books may disappear, but they won’t go down without a fight. And if books go, reading is here to stay. One young person just told me that there is something worse than a nerd. It is a nerd who devotes his life to playing Minecraft. I share the sentiment.

  3. I don’t think you’ve written a book, blog post, or thank you note that I wouldn’t love to read. Thanks for the excellent reminder, too – books are NOT going away, and there’s a TON of wonderful stuff in our world.

  4. Thanks, Rich! In the spirit of virtual hyperbole allow me to say that your reply was THE BEST BLOG COMMENT EVER!!!

    That young person (and I think I know who he might be) sounds like a wise individual indeed, Wally.

    And thanks for the compliment, Ms. Handbasket– but have you read my grocery lists? Even I have to admit that they’re pretty tedious.

  5. Brenda says:

    I really enjoyed this — and I am cheered up!

  6. Then my work here is done. When you need me again, just shine the Hock Signal over Gotham City.

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