Reading is the door to deepening one’s general knowledge or interest in a particular topic. Most citizen, academic, and practical activities depend on an informed membership who reads proficiently. As an educational fictional author, I have developed a way for juveniles and young adults to improve their reading and comprehension skills through my middle school mystery series The Picaresque of Ímagine Purple. It can concurrently refresh their common knowledge or introduce new information to absorb.
You might consider me an informal/incidental/accidental learning source or simply “a voice crying in the wilderness,” one who has privately attacked the student competency issues often reported in news and journal articles.
The Picaresque provides realistic stories about a young teacher-turned-detective whose adventures take her to diverse geographical places where she meets rascals and rogues determined to thwart her investigations and noble causes. But her adventures hold advantages to enjoy casually or to use as a catch-up method. Designed as educational fiction, the series subtly builds word skills and encourages critical thinking needed to solve mysteries. It offers a choice of reading styles with a motto, Have Fun. Get Smarter.™
With no judgment implied, the motto means readers can either scan the imaginary tales of recent history, vicariously visit new locations depicted on enclosed illustrated maps, or grow exponentially by accessing the Appendices. In educational fiction, enrichment material can be ignored or explored. The Appendices serve as back-of-the-book answers. There awaits a wealth of information beyond the mystery:
- biographies of main characters to learn about possible, fatal family flaws
- clichés/idioms/ phrases explanations to see how they add color to sentences
- lookup suggestions in categories to help recall allusions mentioned in the story
- vocabulary words (at PSAT level) to facilitate new ways of expressing ideas.
Structure of the Series
Italics in the content serve as neurological triggers when the eye hits them, but new words are also supported by ample context clues. These can enhance a reader’s enjoyment or simply fade into the background, again by choice.
Content maturity and moral supposition grow from book to book. The series also moves from easy to difficult allusions and vocabulary, a style that subtly grooms readers to handle more complex concepts and social issues introduced in later stories. If taken in sequence, these stories allow readers to follow the progression of main characters facing ever more serious topics.
Set up to help build memory of events, a Prologue reminds readers what has transpired in a previous story. An Epilogue serves as a denouement for characters or suggests events in the next Imasode. The books range up to 25 chapters, with story texts from 50,000 to 80,000 words. Many text paragraphs have gone through the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade, Fog, and Ease of Understanding Scales.
Ímagine Purple, a young teacher with a secret desire to be a sleuth, has the chance to pursue her wish after her pilot husband gets assigned to Vietnam. Rather than have a pity party, she assigns herself to see the world from Newfoundland to New Delhi or as long as her money lasts. She especially anticipates an early stop in Manhattan to visit her famous father, a Broadway musical star, and her best old friend Riina Feingold, a budding actress.
However, after spending much of the 1960s on military bases abroad, Ima naïvely steps back into civilian society not full of fun, family, and friends, but of tumultuous change. Culture has moved men along from marching for civil rights to getting ready to walk on the moon; from wearing pinstriped suits to tie-dyed bell-bottoms; from melodic ballads to heavy metal music.
In some ways Ima feels a bit unprepared, even un-cool because other young people her age are busy protesting everything she thought normal in life. Protests favoring drugs, free love, revolution, and animas toward corporations that employed their parents who could then provide savings for their kids’ education. Even so, the most mystifying outcome of these protests was a revival of Nietsche’s misguided theme that “God is dead.”
She hopes her long trip will afford her opportunity to solidify her detective method which might also help her find her own reason to protest. However, as a new believer, Ima makes typical “do-gooder” mistakes and jumps headlong into “saving the world.” Vacillating between being too judgmental and too lenient with others, she befriends rascals, slips into pitfalls, and ignores her own need for discernment. More like a character from the classics, she gradually gains wisdom and even seeks divine help arranging clues to solve criminal cases as well as life’s mysteries.
Although outwardly a grown young lady, Ima often drifts into daydreaming and introspection, not unlike teenagers. She talks to herself to let readers know about her continued search and stretch to full maturity but dares not share this inner battle with story characters. They need her to remain the glue that holds the picaresque together.
Ima’s Investigation Method
When very young, Ima read lots of mysteries and even created her own crazy investigative technique: find a random detail, turn it upside down, pull it inside out, throw it up against the wall, watch it fall to the floor, stomp on it, and then hope it squirts out a clue or suspicion that leads to a real fact. But now grown and on a new adventure, Ima starts to remold her simple method to resemble how great detectives found their insights.
Sherlock Holmes used deduction often starting with a theory before he had all the facts. Ima felt disappointed that Holmes used cocaine when bored with or blocked on a case. She disrespected this vice as a device to avoid hard work. In contrast, Detective Hercule Poirot fastidiously collected lots of details, used induction to form a theory, and employed “every little gray cell” in his brain. Jane Marple also used induction, nosing her way into police business and inducing witnesses to reveal more than they intended. Nancy Drew practiced what Ima called drewduction, whereby she commandeered pals to help investigate crimes, visited odd places to search out clues, and mercilessly pestered suspects to tell the truth.
Having studied all these approaches and even taught them to her students, Ima began to develop her own method called reduction, reducing details down to the lowest common denominator like with fractions. Although a champion observer, detail finder, and list maker, she still often wrestled with putting everything together to solve a pressing mystery.
Why write educational fiction? The rigorous demands of the genre produce little competition.
Having taught fourth graders who easily mastered tasks and then later teaching remedial adults who scored below the 4th grade level in language arts, I saw a storm brewing. Even newspapers are written on a 6th grade level. My heart broke to see adults unable to grasp content designed for them. So lacking the fundamentals to clarify their own meanings, they struggled to express in a coherent manner topics they had chosen and for which they obviously felt strong passion. Their faces showed great failure and frustration, seeming to wonder why they had returned to school. Admittedly, so did I.
Personally, as a slow-learner, high-achiever type, I needed to push myself al through school. Strangely, my adult students seemed at the start, worn out and with “no push” left, if ever they had any. I found them underexposed to history, geography, politics, and literature but overexposed to pop culture which would rarely help them get a job except in show business. There had to be another approach for me to address the emptiness I saw in my class. Although many of my students lacked the funds and freedom to travel, I had grown up having lots of adventures and wondered if moving away from home would help me expand my horizons. Since writers constantly hear the mantra, “write what you know,” I mulled over how to combine my love of travel with the lack of advanced literacy presenting before my eyes.
Culling files at the start of the New Year, I uncovered articles I wrote in 1991 about Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP) aimed at improving college entrance scores but it obvious failure at this goal. Now, nationwide, over 50% of high school graduates must take remediation before matriculating university.
The current cannon of fiction about aliens, demons, fantasy, monsters, vampires, wizards, and zombies often glamorizes death or offers unreal escapes from problems. And the non-fiction list regularly covers stories of victimization, abuse, or sexual issues which can exhaust the most avid reader. Seeing these offerings, I thought there surely existed room for realistic stories that dealt wholesomely yet openly with subject matter, perhaps stories to stimulate curiosity about recent history or adventures to entertain like only mysteries can. Both of those appealed to me because mysteries can often lure the most jaded or indifferent person.
While living in Newfoundland, I found a great kickoff point for my journey of creating The Picaresque of Ímagine Purple. Beginning with several test readers, Isettled on two (a girl, 11 and a boy, 10) who stuck with me through IMASODE IX before they graduated. The girl was African American and influenced me to keep an Atlanta character I had planned to dismiss; the boy, now in Olympic swimming trials, named my episodes, the Imasodes. They both wrote helpful reports and grew with the difficulty in the series.
Although these books target a broad audience of middle-school to young adult readers, especially those reaching for advanced literacy needed for college entrance, the first two books are easy enough for a 10 year-old. Even so, the challenges and entertainment of The Picaresque of Ímagine Purple hold potential for tweens on the verge of losing interest in schoolbooks, for teens hungry to understand unresolved world issues, for adults who want to refresh their readiness for college, or for elders who simply like nostalgic stories. For more information, the website (imaginepurple.com) expounds on the project. To show the range of topics, the first eight are now available in print with sixteen planned:
IMASODE I: Last Passenger Train Across Newfoundland
IMASODE II: The Scary Ferry to Nova Scotia
IMASODE III: Mary Jane of Canton, Maine
IMASODE IV: Mayhem in Manhattan
IMASODE V: Anti-Belle of Antebellum Atlanta
IMASODE VI: Danger Starts in Detroit
IMASODE VII: Escapades in Estonia
IMASODE VIII: Aunt Lottie’s London
IMASODE IX: Sovereign’s Sunburst Auction in Germany (sent to the publisher)
IMASODE X: From Piraeus to Paris to the Pyrenees (in draft)