6 Reasons to Hook Young Readers on Mysteries
by Marthe Jocelyn
There is a shelf at my cousins’ cottage marked with bold letters on an ancient strip of masking tape: Grandmother’s Agatha Christies. Even though she has been dead for nearly thirty years, her collection remains mostly intact, with each teenager coming of age lying on a sunny rock glued to a yellowing copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The Body in the Library, or, my favorite, Crooked House. I had read all 44 Nancy Drews then in existence when I opened 4:50 from Paddington. A single day of riveted reading later, I felt the thrill of learning that this new-to-me author had even more titles in the library than Carolyn Keene!
Many years and countless books, both read and written, later, I am the author of a new mystery series for middle graders, called Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen. Aggie is an imagined version of a twelve-year-old Agatha Christie, living in Torquay, England in 1902. Along with her new best friend, a Belgian boy named Hector Perot, and armed what her mother calls a Morbid Preoccupation, Aggie investigates murders. The first comes about when she discovers a corpse under the piano in her dance studio: “Her feet lay at odd angles, as if they’d been kicking in protest. Nothing was kicking now. The contorted body was eerily still. I stepped closer and regarded the face, swollen and blue-ish gray in color. One glazed eye stared sideways and a lace of foam ringed the open lips.”
The swollen, blue-gray face might be the spot where an adult itches to intervene. But for an eleven-year-old? That’s reeeally interesting.
The equivalent of Cozy Mystery stories do exist for children: a puppy or a bracelet is stolen, a work of art or a will is forged, a peculiar stranger moves in next door, footprints in the snow suddenly stop. These provide first steps into the wonderful world of tropes and trickery, but plenty of young readers are looking for something darker. Something that makes the hairs stand up on the back of their necks. The criminal is not the only one who steps off an accepted ‘normal’ path. The sleuth—and, vicariously, the reader—invariably has a heart-thudding moment when the last place she should be is exactly where she finds herself. And who would deny her that?
Here are six reasons to hook the child in your life on reading mysteries…
#1: Sleuthing 101
A sneaky pastime of my childhood was to crouch next to the air vent in the bathroom on the second floor and listen to the adult conversation in the kitchen. Admittedly, it was often pretty dull stuff, but occasionally I struck gold, (like when my brother’s girlfriend ran away from home and hid in our basement for four days). Part of the appeal of a kid sleuth is that she gets to do exactly what the reader wishes for himself—to eavesdrop, to creep outside after dark, to follow a character deemed worthy of following… In general, to see and hear what is not meant to be witnessed or overheard. It may not be a quality generally praised, but being nosy is shorthand for curiosity and independence. In a mystery book for young readers, these are necessary tools to crack the case. The reader sees the advantage of not just following a suspect, but of jumping nimbly ahead, challenged to be creative, even devious, in order to outwit the villain.
From a writer’s perspective, it used to be that removing parents from a story was the first step to showcasing the main character’s quick wits. Now, it’s the cell phone that must be broken or lost. How boring a book would be if all the answers were found using GPS and Google! So much better for the plot—and to prove it can be done—to have our hero and heroine figure things out for themselves. A chance for those who are inquisitive and resourceful to succeed without necessarily being cute or cool or even athletic. Stuart Gibbs, author of the Spy School series, among many other titles, says that “A mystery is a story where the smartest person wins.” Smart, resourceful, and with a liberal dash of mischief.
#2: Spotting Patterns and Solving Puzzles
While suspense is driving your child to turn the pages, (making him want to practice reading), it is the puzzle-solving aspect of mysteries that sharpens other skills. Finding clues requires paying attention to details. The reader-as-detective begins to notice small incidents and significant objects. As the facts are collected, he learns to interpret their meaning. He must remember in what order events occurred, and how that sequence affects the outcome. Who has the sturdiest alibi? Which characters are hiding part of the truth? What happens because of that? Like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the reader is challenged to find the logical path through a maze that the writer has carefully constructed.
In Peril at Owl Park, the second book about Aggie Morton, the young writer-to-be as sleuth considers and reconsiders the murder scene, inserting different characters to see who was most likely to have been there:
The weary actor pulled off his boots and rubbed a hand across the stubble on his chin, his head a little foggy…
The nervous young footman entered the library with his heart pounding…
Miss Annabelle Day strode purposefully toward the single lamp glowing in the darkened room…
The man from Ceylon crept into the library and took up the silver-handled magnifying glass from where it lay next to the pens and inkwell on the desk…
#3: Sparking Interest in Storytelling
Following in Aggie’s footsteps, the best way to encourage a young fan’s interest in learning to write a story is to read a mystery, where the elements of a good tale are clear cut: a villain and a crime, a detective, a plot with surprising conflict and plenty of secrets to reveal, a denouement that answers all the questions. Agatha Christie usually thought up the logistics of how a murder could be committed long before knowing who the killer would be—and occasionally changed her mind on that, part way through writing the novel.
The young storyteller can follow a recipe of sorts. Who will be the bad guy? What does he do? How does he mess up without realizing? Is the detective wily, or a bumbler? Which clue first comes to light? And then what happens? And after that? And then what? How does the villain finally get caught? A student’s anonymous comment on an online blog puts very simply what all crime readers feel: “I like mysterious stories because once you start reading you always want to know what’s coming up next.” Even a reluctant reader has a hard time resisting a mystery.
Aggie Morton is not only a girl detective, but also a poet and a collector of similes: “Attached like a burr to a silk stocking… Like dog hair to a velvet cushion, like candle wax on a lace cuff.” She also amuses herself by imagining, in purple prose, the demise of various townsfolk, including the reverend Mr. Teasdale: “Wrenched from its perch, his dislodged cranium rolled to a stop next to Mrs. Teasdale’s tightly laced boots. A geyser of blood erupted from the reverend’s stiff white collar and spurted Heavenward.”
Gory? Yes. But what else would you expect from a girl who will grow up to plot the murders of nearly 300 victims?
#4: A Limitless Supply
Happily, there is an endless supply of mysteries waiting at the library and the bookstore.
Kids like to read books that come in series for the same reasons we do. We get to know the quirks of the central characters, and trust that the same-but-different plotline will deliver a suspenseful ride, all the way to a satisfying ending and the promise of another adventure after this one. The number of youth mystery series has multiplied dramatically in the last decade, notably the popular Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer, starring Sherlock’s teenage sister (often craftier than her famous sibling), and several variations of a youthful Sherlock himself, including The Boy Sherlock Holmes by Shane Peacock and Young Sherlock Holmes by Andy Lane. Other historical mystery series are Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R.Simon, and Robin Stevenson’s Murder Most Unladylike books. Series set in this century are the thrilling Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz, and the funny Sammy Keyes stories by Wendelin van Draanen. For younger, chapter book readers, try the Lark books by Natasha Deen or The Mighty Muskrats by Michael Hutchinson, along with the perennial favorite Cam Jansen, by David Adler. A few favorite standalone novels, from a truly unending choice, are The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce.
If your young reader prefers non-fiction, there is a wide range, covering true-crime, forensics, haunted venues, spies, and profiles of notorious criminals and scams. One in particular, that clearly outlines the steps of police procedure, (also useful as a writer’s resource!) is by Norah McClintock, called Body, Crime, Suspect: How a Murder Investigation Really Works.
Children are big fans of re-reading a book they’ve already finished, and recognizing how-dunnit while already knowing whodunnit can make a second or third read-through all the more rewarding.
On nights when my father taught a class and came home late, my mother cooked something that we liked and he didn’t. That was Step One. Step Two was declaring a Reading Supper. All four kids brought our books to the table and happily read while eating macaroni and cheese. My mother was happiest of all, cleverly managing to get through another chapter of Ngaio Marsh or Josephine Tey before the wrangle of girls’ or boys’ turn to do the dishes. Once I began to read those books along with my mother—what might now be called bonding—I stayed at the table to talk about them—sticking my brothers with kitchen duty…
During various levels of lockdown and being distant from family and friends, reading a book is good company—but sharing the book through a remote chat with Gram or a Parent-Child book club can enhance its value even further. Since you’re already a mystery fan, you’ll get a kick out of meeting new detectives and solving new puzzles. Your kid will get a kick out of trying to figure out the solution not just before the sleuth in the book, but before his parent as well.
A shared reading experience can also become an entry point into interesting, practical conversations. Referring to a kid facing trouble in a mystery book lets you ask questions like, what would you do in a situation like that? If you found a duffle bag full of bank notes, for instance, like the boys in Millions, would you keep it to yourself or tell a grown-up? And what if you learned that someone was planning a crime? Would the police believe you? Would your teacher be willing to help? And what if solving the problem was entirely up to you? Under pressure and with possibly divided loyalties or personal stakes?
Your child might start to look at the motives and capabilities of other people in her life with expanded empathy. According to Holly Parker in an article for Psychology Today, “the same regions of the brain are at work when we’re thinking about other people and their points of view, regardless of whether those individuals happen to be real or fictional characters,” meaning that “when we devote our mental energy to stepping into an imaginary person’s inner world, we’re essentially honing our ability to do the very same thing with actual people”.
Luckily, fictional characters are just that. Fictional. Offering escape for adults and kids alike. Safe, enlightening escape that offers a compelling alternative to screen time, and possibly the best reason of all for diving into a mystery. Readers leave the dull or worrisome world for a few hours, land in a different place or time, pit their wits against villains, nose out secrets, and feel the glowing satisfaction of winning!
Most mystery books begin with a hook to draw you in and make you ask questions from the first page. Peril at Owl Park offers this in the opening paragraph: “Uncle James was the sort of person who liked having extra children come for Christmas. Not the sort of person to invite a murderer on purpose…” But, as with so many of our favorite stories, there is a murderer among us, a body in the library, and a clever person endeavoring to solve the crime. The bookshelf is beckoning to the young reader at your house.