Two School Stories, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners

Two new British imports, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners, offer middle grade readers clever young women, wry and witty authorial voices, hapeless teachers, excellent sidekicks, well-developed settings, and page-turning plots. Both are also just a lot of fun.

Mars Evacuees opens at the Muckling Abbott School for Girls where twelve year-old Alice Dare learns that she is one of a handful of kids being evacuated to Mars. This is most likely because of her mother, a celebrity military pilot in Earth’s war with the Morror, invisible aliens who have caused catastrophic climate change. Harkening back to those children who were evacuated from London during WW II, Alice and a similar group head off to Mars. Overseen by military and scientist adults, the children are divided into age cohorts and tended to and taught by some surprisingly personable robots — Alice’s is the Goldfish. She acquires friends: smart and quirky Josephine, good-hearted Carl, and his sweet little brother Noel. When all the adults mysteriously disappear, after coping with some serious Lord of the Flies situations, the four head off to find help, encountering a young Morror along the way. There is an Indiana Jones quality to the story — the way the kids barrel into one over-the-top challenge after another, figure them out, and carry on. While there is tension and you have no idea what will happen, Alice’s voice is so determined and charming, that you are just sure they will survive. And they do and more than that — they save the..well, world isn’t quite the right word…the world and other stuff, shall we say. It is great fun! (Hmm…writing this makes me think this will be my next read aloud.)

Whereas Mars Evacuees is set mostly on a futuristic Mars, Murder is Bad Mannerswinner of the 2015 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prizeis set firmly in a 20th century past. It is 1934 and 8th grader Hazel Wong has been sent from her Hong Kong home to the very English Deepdean School for Girls where she encounters the lively Daisy Wells. After a teacher literally drops dead, Daisy organizes the Wells & Wong Detective Society, determined to find the murderer. The timid Watson-like Hazel writes of their efforts, fretting as Daisy, very much the Sherlock of the two (more in terms of leadership as she is far more socially apt than the adult detective), brazenly determines just what they have to do. A diverse protagonist, a school story, a cozy mystery in the vein of Christie, a friendship narrative, and one with some interesting touches regarding race and prejudice, Murder is Bad Manners is all in all a delight. The first in the Wells and Wong series, I can’t wait to read the next one.

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