Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2016 292 pgs.
T.O.A.S.T vol. 1
Florian Bates is a child genius. He has developed a system for solving mysteries called TOAST, which involves ignoring the big picture and concentrating on all the little details to get to the truth. Both of his parents have careers in the art world, which has led them to a move to Washington DC where they will work for the National Gallery. Florian immediately befriends neighbor Margaret, who is also about to enter seventh grade in the same school Florian will be attending. She has similar interests and intelligence and he teaches her the methods behind TOAST. While practicing these techniques they learn valuable information that comes in handy when three important impressionist pieces disappear in a late-night art heist. Florian reports to the crime scene with his security expert father and shares the information gleaned by himself and Margaret, using TOAST to gather more facts, which are used to locate the paintings before they leave the building. The FBI agent on the case is impressed with Florian's abilities and solicits him to assist in tracking down the culprit who is unknown. Florian and Margaret work on the case as they slide in and out of dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Margaret is trying to track down her birth parents and enlists Florian to help her. Florian finds the answer to Margaret's parentage, but when the identity is both surprising and potentially dangerous should he tell her? Red herrings abound and threats lurk around every corner as Florian works diligently to solve the case. Finally, solve it he does, but the end of the story brings the hint of a new case, which will be revealed in the next volume in the series.
Ponti offers a traditional mystery for middle readers that is both solvable and fun to read. Enough clues and suspects are presented to keep kids guessing, yet not so many that the book becomes confusing. Florian is a modern day Encyclopedia Brown. He is smarter than the adults around him and willing to lend his expertise to track down the clues. Readers will vicariously live through Florian as he is recruited by the FBI and sent to the top-secret headquarters for training. Beyond possessing super intelligence, Florian is brave, well adjusted, and friendly. The addition of Margaret lends gender balance to the story, as well as racial diversity, yet I question how realistic a friendship between a girl and a boy in seventh grade is. Florian enters seventh grade as a super-smart new student with a female best friend and gets immediately elected to student council. He is better adjusted and evolved than any of the boys of a similar age that I know. But then again, maybe I'm over thinking it. This is a mystery after all and character development is not the first priority. A tightly woven plot with clues and non-stop action is what is required and this Ponti delivers. Readers also learn a bit about art and may be encouraged to visit the National Gallery or Google the paintings mentioned in the book. Best of all, its great fun and will expose middle grade readers to the joys of reading mysteries.