Book two of the Slate Stephens Mysteries has nice pacing with the plot being a bit more complex than book one, but I can't help feel that the series misses the majority of its target audience. The book is written for grade 4 or middle grade, but the boyfriend, girlfriend subplot is for older readers. If the plot focused on common conventions like friendship and dropped the boy, girl interest I wouldn't have a problem with it. Developmentally, most 4th graders are not thinking of the opposite sex in this way. As is, I think this book will appeal to readers that are not quite at grade level or still working toward fluency in middle school.
Seventh grade Slate and Daphne are helping their geologist dads prospect for a gold mining company in the ghost town of Bannack, Montana. When two priceless artworks are stolen from the museum in the nearby town of Bannack, the sleuths begin to investigate. Their explorations lead them into the Bannack schoolhouse where they discover a clue to a treasure hunt for rumored lost gold a group of vigilantes stole from unsuspecting victims during the 1800s.
Slate's voice develops more in this book and I like his emerging humor. He jokes and has a gentleness that comes through as he interacts with his funny three-year-old sister that gives his character more depth. She annoys him at times which makes his feelings authentic for siblings, but their age difference is about 9 years so he is going to treat her with more maturity than siblings closer in age. In the first book Slate is a klutz, but here he is growing up and echoes his father's sense of fun. This comes out best with the walkie-talkie scenes where he is witty and playful with adults, his sister, and Daphne. He and Daphne are dating and he contemplates throughout the story how he is going to kiss her.
The author has nice pacing and I found the geology fascinating which is amazing considering I dropped out of geology class because I thought it was so boring in college. I can't think of any other kid books that cover geology in fiction. Readers will like the ghost town and treasure hunt. This plot is full of facts about the vigilantes, art, mining, and ghost towns. The author's strengths are weaving interesting facts into a fast-paced plot. The part where Slate and Daphne are threatened is appropriate for younger readers. The author uses humor to downplay the danger and the villains are bumbling fools. It will be nice having conversations with students about the book. I'll be curious their reactions to the romantic subplot. I thought the protagonists age and romance was at odds with the rest of the story; however, students can react quite differently than me. They might not think anything of it.
The treasure hunt resolution is a bit of a letdown, but the clues were interesting to follow. Again, the plot is straightforward and the start is a good hook. Collard seems to have a blast recreating the vigilantes in Slate's dream and a seed for another story is masked in that dream. Perhaps the author will take a hike down the historical fiction genre lane, creating a book ripe with the hanging of Plummer and drowning of Dorothy. Or maybe a budding writer out there can pursue it. There are not many Wild West books and with only a handful of recommendations like Caroline Lawrence, Amy Timberlake, and Gary Paulsen, I would love to see more. A fun mystery.