I love reading children’s fiction and especially mysteries. Why?
Like most of us mystery readers and writers, as a youngster when I became bored with Dick and Jane, Spot and Fluffy, I started reading The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Vicky Barr (Air Stewardess), and other mystery series titles for children. When I began to write my myself, I realized I knew mysteries and especially children’s mysteries better than most other genres.
Do you remember Cherry Ames, Sue Barton, and Trixie Belden? Few plots stayed with me, but one title was memorable. The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May prompted me to beg my mother for a baby sister when I was ten and then eleven. Surprise! I do have a sister who is 12 years younger than me. (I found out recently that my favorite Bobbsey Twins’ book was highly regarded by the famous children’s author, Lois Lowry. Read her The Willoughbys for allusions to many juvenile titles we all enjoyed).
Being a big sister made me want to grow up even faster and I began to read adult mysteries such as Perry Mason by Earle Stanley Gardner plus the MacDonalds, both Ross and John D., then I progressed to psychological thrillers such as Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.
After my children were born I volunteered in the school library where my hidden love emerged. I realized I always wanted to be a librarian: to talk about and share books with readers of all ages. I obtained my MLS and realized my goal of being a children’s librarian in a public school in Montgomery County, MD, in 1992!
Now the titles we have available are not as formulaic as the early mystery series were written. If you haven’t read books for this age, you are in for a treat. Clues, red herrings, and meaty plots with unique characters are found in every bookstore and school library.
Where to begin? One of the standard classic children’s mystery novels, a Newbery medal winner, is The Westing Game. Written in 1978 by Ellen Raskin, I haven’t read it yet. Here are Raskin’s intriguing first lines: “The sun set in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!”
Speaking of children’s book awards, Joan Lowry Nixon won the coveted Edgar, given out by Mystery Writers of America membership, three times in the 1980’s with titles as varied as The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore, The Séance, and The Other Side of the Dark.
Even in the 1970’s, children’s mystery authors were introducing diverse characters, which is the newest trend in children’s literature. Skip ahead to my time as a school librarian. Blue Balliett’s art mysteries set in Chicago grabbed me when I as an elementary librarian. learning the newest titles to share. I followed up her debut Chasing Vermeer (2004) reading the other three in her series about art heists solved by a multi-cultural group of pre-teens. Balliett’s mysteries include boys and girls from a middle school, their creative teacher, and a math game called Pentominoes. I cannot explain how these plastic pieces help one protagonist, Calder, but the author will make you understand why these manipulatives are central to solving clues.
Many mystery writers are now mixing genres, adding adventure, historical fiction, humor, and maybe some fantasy to their novels. Two examples of current titles I enjoyed in 2017 include Kate Milford’s sequel to The Greenglass House, The Ghosts of Greenglass House, and a debut by Caroline Carlson called The World’s Greatest Detective. It would be a spoiler to mention which genres are mixed in these mysteries! I am proud to mention Carlson’s novel (and my grandson’s favorite detective novel) has been nominated for an Agatha this year!).
Chris Grabenstein’s fun series adds gaming and holograms as well as competitions to his Lemoncello Library books. Boys and girls compete in a modern-day Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-like contest. Another great children’s mystery, recommended to me by my favorite mystery Indie bookseller, is The Book Scavenger. Do you know children who enjoy geocaching? Jennifer Chambliss Bertman combines the idea of searching for clues in geographic locations with the concept of book titles. The setting is everyone’s favorite: San Francisco. Think Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Allen Poe and Jack Kerouac. Children learn about these famous authors while reading Bertram’s books and scavenging along with the characters. I hear there is a great sequel to The Book Scavenger!
Another favorite author includes Mary Downing Hahn, a Children’s Book Guild member in the Washington, DC chapter. Her ghost stories are deliciously scary according to the students where I volunteer. They loved Took and One For Sorrow (2017). Sometimes Hahn adds time travel elements to her books. She won the Edgar Award for Juvenile mysteries in 2010 for Closed for the Season, now on my TBR list. I can recommend her earlier books such as The Doll in the Garden, Wait Till Helen Comes: a Ghost Story, and A Time for Andrew (especially appealing to guy readers.)
How about contemporary topics introduced in a mystery? Gordon Korman has penned a series which explains the complications of cloning in his Masterminds series. This intriguing set of books reminded me of Nancy Farmer’s science fiction mysteries, such as The Eye, the Ear and the Arm as well as The House of the Scorpion for YA readers.
Wesley King shared true-to-life experiences in a mystery featuring Daniel who suffers from OCD without a diagnosis. His Edgar, Silver Birch, and Bank Street Best Book of the Year awarded title, OCDaniel for high school students, provides a great adventure in eighth grade and on the football team with clues surprising even Daniel and his new friends. The author astonishes us when Daniel receives an unsigned note which reads, “Help me.” I agree with the Booklist starred review that OCDaniel, “a perceptive, first person narrative is sometimes painful, sometimes amusing, and always rewarding.” The mystery sneaks up on the reader as “a bonus” to this unusual novel which will appeal to older middle schoolers and high school readers.
If you readers enjoy pets in your novels, try Spencer Quinn’s series about Bowser and his owner Birdie. Quinn’s adult series about Bernie, the dog, will remind you of the author’s fun and unique technique of solving mysteries when the main detective’s sidekick cannot “speak” out loud. Another Agatha nominated author in other years, Quinn has written Woof (2015), Arf (2016) and Bow Wow (2017) in the Birdie and Bowser series.
The Harlem Charade is a children’s mystery debut nominated this year for an Agatha. Natasha Tarplay, author of I Love My Hair, creates a contemporary mystery with diverse young protagonists: a homeless boy, a Hispanic girl living above a bodega, and a secretly rich female friend, all of whom find community spirit along with Harlem’s art history. (By the way, Gordon Korman provided his “thumbs up” blurb on the cover of this new book as he complimented the twists and pacing of Tarplay’s novel.
When I don’t read mysteries, I love historical fiction. York: The Shadow Cipher (Book 1) by Laura Ruby is a distinctive NYC historical mystery. Beginning in the 1800’s with a prominent fictional family, the action moves into the present. I cannot even describe the elevator in the current family’s historic home. You will have to discover the fantastic way the contemporary twins leave their apartment to solve this intriguing family mystery.
What is my conclusion? SO MANY BOOKS; SO LITTLE TIME!
I am looking forward to meeting and greeting new and old author friends at Malice Domestic 30, a great fan conference in Bethesda, MD at the end of April. One new mystery author I just met online is Cindy Callaghan, whose novel Sydney Mackenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead, a 2017 Agatha nominee for best children’s mystery, I found very appealing for the middle grade audience.
I urge you to find time for these titles, many of which can be read in one to two days. Check out the mystery award lists for new favorites. You won’t be disappointed at the variety and the craftsmanship of the children’s mystery authors.
I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a reading and writing family. MY grandfather published two books and a play; my mother was the women’s editor and later one of the first city editors of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in the 1950’s and 1960’s; and my uncle wrote for The Stars and Stripes. Our grandsons love to read and write mysteries, too. After retiring from a school librarian position in 2007 at an elementary school where I taught Marcia Talley’s grands, this school librarian was encouraged by Kathy Harig of Mystery Loves Company Bookstore and author Marcia Talley to attend Malice Domestic!
www.BESTBOOKSBYBETH.COM for more recommendations of children’s literature
HAPPY READING IN 2018!!