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Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Suitcase in the Ditch Review by Laurie Gauger

Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Gypsy Summer
Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Midnight Tea Party
Norma Jean’s Notebook
Storyboarding With Norma Jean

Summertime, summertime, I love summertime. In our household, summer means a break from our regular homeschool activities. It’s a time to put the text books away until the Fall. Rest is the theme for this time of year, and that includes indulging in pastimes that we don’t always have as much time for as we would like. One of those delights for us is reading. Alright, alright, yes, we read all year round, but there’s just something special about summer reading. A trip to the bookstore, or the library, is even more wonderful than usual, when the goal is to select a book to read for pure enjoyment. Bliss, that’s what it is. Even better, we didn’t need to make a trip to the library or bookstore this month, because we received not one, not two, but the entire set of Norma Jean Mysteries, by N.J. Bennett. Oh, glory!

Now, I’m not trying to make you jealous, I assure you, but this is an impressive set. Included in our package was the following:

- Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Suitcase

- Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Gypsy Summer

- Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Midnight Tea Party

- Norma Jean’s Notebook

- Storyboarding With Norma Jean

As a quick side note, our books arrived in a such a sweet package. They were stacked together, one on top of the other, with a note pad, Norma Jean sticker, and pencils. All wrapped together with twine. It was almost too pretty to open. But, anyway, back to the review.

One of the things that I’m enjoying about the age of my daughters, is that at twelve and fourteen years old, their reading level is such that the books written for their age are often enjoyable for adults as well. I am a big fan of middle school age books, especially many of the series that were written in the general time period of the 1940’s and up. The Norma Jean series reminds me of some of those books, and I suppose that it is the nostalgia of those days gone by that quickly drew me in to the storyline and characters of this set.

Allow me to set the stage...

Twelve year old Norma Jean Nielson lives with her parents, five brothers, and one sister on a grain farm in Alberta, Canada in the 1960’s. Howard is her slightly younger brother and best friend. There is always something to find to do out on their farm, but what they love to do the most, is solve mysteries. Each of these three books features a different puzzle of sorts to work out. 

The first story in the series, Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Suitcase in the Ditch, is also the shortest of the three. Summer is just beginning, and Norma Jean and Howard love to take a break from their farm chores and explore Old Sven’s farm. But one day, a mysterious suitcase turns up in the ditch there. Curiosity gets the best of Norma Jean and Howard, and they open it, discovering an old WWII era poster with a picture of a German swastika, as well as some words in Danish. They bring the suitcase back to their clubhouse, but someone steals it. Norma Jean writes down every lead in her notebook. Clues begin turning up that seem to link her Danish immigrant grandparents to this budding mystery. Her grandfather is acting strangely, and the kids turn to their Uncle Reynold for help. They discover a stranger at Old Sven’s place, and then their grandfather goes missing! The information that comes to light changes the Nielson family forever.

The second story, Norma Jean and the Gypsy Summer, took me a little longer to get interested in. Have you ever had that happen, when you become so attached to the first story in a series, that the second one feels harder to acclimate to? That was the case for me, but once I read through the first few chapters, I was in it all the way. In this sequel, the Nielsen family are at their summer cabin, a favorite for Norma Jean and Howard. They also have a visitor that joins their family for the season, their distant cousin, with the funny name of Gypsy. He isn’t from Canada, but Louisiana, and he brings all of his Acadian traditions with him. His visit unearths a big family mystery, this time on Norma Jean’s mother’s side of the family.  A whole new set of clues find their way into Norma Jean’s notebook, as she, along with Howard and Gypsy, try to figure out the strange Cajun signs that seem to keep popping up. The key to the mystery seems to be hidden in an old French family Bible.

The third book, Norma Jean and the Mystery of the Midnight Tea Party was very easy for me to get comfortable with. This time around, the mystery’s theme revolves around an old agreement between Canada and England. Someone is stealing gas from all of the local farms, and Norma Jean and Howard are determined to find out who it is. They suspect a family of nasty neighbors, which includes an old grandfather who never seems to leave the attic. Little do they realize that the new British lady who is helping a neighbor out for the summer, has many of the answers to this mystery. 

This series is written for the middle school grades. Even so, I enjoyed them, and both my twelve and fourteen-year-old daughter enjoyed them. Fortunately, there were three of them for us, because we took turns passing them around. We all read them in order, but if it came down to it, they could each be read as a standalone without confusion as to who the characters are, although I still think it would be best to do it sequentially. My daughters, being as young as they are, couldn’t appreciate the references to the time period of this series’ setting, like purple tang for instance, but I loved the mental trip back in time.

The characters were wholesome and sweet, without being wishy washy. There are however, two points in Norma Jean and the Gypsy summer that I would caution parents about. In the first couple chapters of the book, and then a little further on, there is the use of two expletives. My daughters and I were a little taken aback at this, as it didn’t feel the least bit necessary, or to fit within the context of the book. I have no idea why it was in there, as none of the characters have a rebellious air about them. Regardless, parents should be aware of this before you read these with your kids. 

Something that makes these stand out is the author’s inclusion of history and other cultures in these stories. My daughters and I learned aspects of history that we had never known before. We learned about the Danish resistance in WWII, and the subtle ways that the country of Denmark helped in the fight against Hitler. We learned some of the superstitions and omens that are a part of the Cajun culture. We also had never heard of the British Home Children and their link with Canada. Sneaking those bits of history in there is genius, I tell you.

There are subtle suggestions of spirituality, as in Christianity, here and there, but nothing overt and obvious. Andy, the father of the Nielson family, speaks of the Bible, and prayer every so often. But as a whole, this is a clean and engaging series for middle schoolers and on up.

The Storyboarding With Norma Jean book is a fun paperback book that uses various events from the stories and ties them in with some fun writing, vocabulary, and general storytelling exercises. Presented like a journaling notebook, and from Norma Jean’s point of view, middle schoolers will learn new vocabulary words, write definitions, and lay out an outline to write a story of their own. It is complete with pencil sketches that are supposed to have been drawn by none other than Norma Jean herself. My twelve-year-old glommed onto this quickly, as she loves learning and incorporating new vocabulary. This could be used during the school year as a side study, or as a fun summer activity, or for anytime at all.

Norma Jean’s notebook is just that, a cute little notebook with a few simple pencil sketches here and there, where your reader can journal and write whatever comes to their mind. It was my fourteen-year-old who grabbed that little gem. She can fill a notebook faster than anyone I know.

We have all thoroughly enjoyed each book in this set, and I will happily add them to my list of recommended books for middle schoolers. Happy Reading!

-Product review by Laurie Gauger, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July, 2018