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Catch 'em young: that's the message for authors today. Ever since J K Rowling became the first author in the history of writing to make a billion through the sale of her Harry Potter bestsellers, books aimed at children of all ages seem to have become a potentially prize-winning ticket in the lottery of fiction.
In what marketing executives would call 'backward integration', John Grisham has got onto the bandwagon of juvenile literature by introducing earlyteenaged readers to 13-year-old Theodore Boone, the son of two small-town lawyers, Marcella and Woods Boone, who wants to be a litigator himself when he grows up.
Theodore - or Theo, as everyone calls him, except his mother who is the only one allowed to call him Teddy, a name he otherwise hates - made his debut two books ago in Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, in which the young hero used his investigative skills to unearth evidence which helped to bring to trial a man suspected of murdering his wife.
This time around, however, it is Theo who is in the dock, falsely accused of having broken into an electronic goods store and stealing hi-tech laptops and mobile phones collectively worth over 20, 000 dollars. Knowing that he is innocent makes his burden of shame for having brought disgrace on his family all the harder to bear.
To make matters worse, Theo seems to be the target of some mysterious vendetta. The tyres of the bicycle he loves to whizz around on through the streets of Strattenbury, his home town, have been repeatedly slashed, his school locker has been broken into, and a rock has been hurled at the window of the back room of his parents' office which Theo uses to study in.
Theo enlists the help of his eighth grade school friends, April, Woody and Chase, and his black-sheep uncle, Ike, a disbarred lawyer overly fond of beer, to solve the mystery and clear his name. Along the way, Grisham provides diverting vignettes of small-town life in Middle America, including the case of a spitting llama, with a bad attitude towards people in uniform, whom Theo has to defend in the local Animal Court.
All in all, it's an enjoyable read for kids, as well as for their parents in whom Theo's adventures might well revive nostalgic memories of the exploits of Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-Outers and Dog series (Theo too has a pet dog called Judge, appropriately enough).
Fans of Grisham's grown-up legal thrillers - and his baseball books, the latest of which was Calico Joe - are likely to treat the Theodore Boone series in much the same way as adult readers did Harry Potter: on the pretext of getting them for their children, they read the books themselves and added to the juvenile wizard's worldwide cult following. Will Theo prove another Harry? Unlikely. As engaging as he is, the nimble-witted aspiring lawyer doesn't have the magic - in more ways than one which is Harry's stock-in-trade.
That said, Theo Boone is a welcome addition to the world of children's literature, following as he does in the all-American footsteps of child heroes like Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And in that Theo's young readers will go on to read his adult fiction, thereby further swelling the author's already overflowing royalty coffers, Grisham's pint-sized lawyer represents a smart move by a career writer who wants to expand the age and scope of his readership. As Theo's Uncle Ike might say: Clever fella, that Grisham guy.
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