In 1960, science and technology writer Clifford B. Hicks — an editor for Popular Mechanics — wrote the first of what would eventually be nine children’s books featuring a spunky young inventor named Alvin Fernald. Alvin — with the help of his own “Magnificent Brain,” his best friend Shoie, and his sister Daphne (“The Pest”) — was always stumbling onto mysteries that needed investigating, codes that needed decoding, and various problems that needed creative solutions, usually with the help of one of Alvin’s inventions.
I was never a hardcore fan of Alvin Fernald — when it came to mysteries, I liked Encyclopedia Brown better, and I thought the world inhabited by Beverly Cleary’s characters was far more interesting — but when I saw Alvin Fernald, Superweasel advertised in the pages of the Scholastic Books catalog, I begged my mom for it. My second grade brain — which was just beginning to soak up books, comics, and movies where radiation gave you superpowers instead of cancer — was all but certain this book would be about a kid only a little older than me who had acquired the powers of a weasel through some freakish lab accident. I mean, he was an inventor, right? Surely, this was an example of Science Gone Horribly Awry, right?!?
No such luck.
As it turns out, Superweasel is basically a manifesto on environmental awareness for young adults. Alvin, appalled at all the trash and pollution in his hometown of Riverton, Indiana, adopts the guise of Superweasel as a way of carrying out a few acts of ecoterrorism without being recognized. Dressed as Superweasel, for example, Alvin climbs to the top of the tallest smokestack in town and plugs the top, sending smoke belching back into the factory and workers scrambling for fresh air. Mission accomplished, point made.
Yet, despite my disappointment that Superweasel didn’t live up to expectations, I was glued to this book and couldn’t read it fast enough. In the summer of 1974, I spent several nights sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the floor of my bedroom (it was the closest I liked to get to camping in New Mexico…), reading Alvin Fernald, Superweasel by flashlight, even as I fought to keep my eyes from slamming shut.
For that reason, Clifford Hicks’ Alvin Fernald, Superweasel scores the first Two-Fer in the First Books feature: it’s the First Book I Read With A Flashlight Under The Covers, and it’s The First Time I Fell Victim To A Deceptive Title That Failed To Live Up To My Initial Expectations (cross reference: Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy).
More information on Clifford Hicks and Alvin Fernald can be found here.