In 1997 the Scholastic Corporation bought the U.S. rights to a young-adult fantasy novel by an unknown English author for $105,000. That was a lot of money at the time, especially to the not yet ultra-rich Joann Rowling, but it turned out to be the bargain of the century that one, and probably this one too. Over the next decade or so Scholastic went on to print (spoiler alert!) over 140 million Harry Potter books. (Read about Harry Potter's last adventure here.)
Now Harry is living happily ever after, except for a few postscripts (like The Tales of Beedle the Bard, due out in December), and Scholastic is getting ready for its first major post-Harry Potter launch, a new series called The 39 Clues. But things will work a little differently this time. The rules in the magical land of young-adult publishing have changed. The 39 Clues isn't the second coming of Harry Potter. There won't be one.Harry Potter and the Death of the Author
The 39 Clues is a series of novels about two orphans named Dan and Amy Cahill. At the start of the first book, The Maze of Bones, just now appearing in bookstores, their beloved grandmother Grace has just died, and all the far-flung members of the Cahill family have gathered round to hear the reading of the will. They are treated to the astounding revelation that the Cahills are in fact secretly the most powerful family in the world. It turns out that just about everybody important in the history of modern civilization Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Houdini was actually a Cahill.
The secret of the family's power is hidden somewhere in the world. In Grace's will, each member of the family has been given a choice: either accept a legacy of a million dollars and walk away, no questions asked, or compete in a global scavenger hunt to find and claim the secret. Of course Amy, who's 14, and Dan, who's 11, take Door No. 2. So do six other teams of Cahills. All scamper off in search of the titular 39 clues, aiding and double-crossing and feuding with each other all the while. The hunt leads them to a lot of exotic locations (Philadelphia! Paris!) where they have subtly educational adventures.
It's all very entertaining, and the educational stuff goes down with only the faintest academic aftertaste. (David Levithan, executive editorial director at Scholastic and a young-adult author himself, calls The 39 Clues "subversively educational," by which he presumably means that kids won't notice they're learning, not that the books actually subvert any societal norms.) "It's very much about family dynamics," Levithan says. "That's the heart of it. The most relatable factor about it is that every kid thinks their family is just really strange and large and weird. The idea that you can be born into this family that has these secrets almost every kid feels that way."
Whether he's right about that or not, Amy and Dan are certainly appealing Dan is nerdy (he's an obsessive collector) and bratty but surprisingly resourceful, and Amy is brilliant but touchingly shy and insecure. The plot ticks along with the iron reliability of an atomic clock. If you forcibly interbred Lemony Snicket and National Treasure and chose the most viable of their mutant offspring, you might come up with something like The 39 Clues. Scholastic is printing a first run of a million copies and holding launch events in seven cities.
Levithan is adamant about not comparing The 39 Clues to its famous older sibling. "We don't ever dream about having another Harry Potter," he says. But the series does share some cosmetic similarities with Rowling's. Harry is, like Amy and Dan, an orphan who discovers that his family history makes him part of a secret, powerful world. The Cahill family is divided into four branches, each with its own distinct personality, just as Hogwarts is divided into four distinct houses. But in another sense Levithan is very right: if you look under the hood you'll find that Scholastic has engineered The 39 Clues to work very differently from the way Harry Potter did.
And engineered is the word. The 39 Clues is, like some lab-grown genetically engineered life-form, a series without a real author. J.K. Rowling conceived Harry Potter on a crowded, four-hour-delayed train trip between Manchester and London. The 39 Clues was born about three years ago in a corporate boardroom. Levithan runs a weekly "idea group" at Scholastic "basically, about a dozen editors get together every week, and we just brainstorm ideas," he explains. Amy and Dan were one of those brainstorms. (Originally the series was called The 79 Clues before Levithan and co. decided to scale it back, probably wisely.) The 39 Clues is overseen by a team of a dozen Scholastic employees, including four editors. Each book in the series will be written by a different author, who will be retained on a contract basis.
It's hardly a new approach young-adult series have often been written by multiple authors under contract, ever since the Bobbsey Twins. The Maze of Bones is by Rick Riordan, a former middle school history teacher who is the author of the best-selling Percy Jackson series, and who also helped flesh out ideas for the other books in the 39 Clues series. "They were very secretive," Riordan says. "They did nondisclosure agreements. I felt like I was working for the CIA!" Riordan's involvement with Amy and Dan will end when Maze goes on sale Sept. 9. "It's a little bittersweet not to take it all the way," he says. "But on the other hand it just wouldn't be humanly possible for one writer to write all those books in the amount of time we're talking about."