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Bringing Mystery to the Classroom

By Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
 | May 09, 2016

Follow clues, break codes, decipher maps, complete puzzles, and gather evidence—readers can do all this and more as they read well-crafted mystery and detective stories. Whether they are reading chapter books as beginning readers or novels as mature teens, readers will enjoy trying to solve the mysteries within the pages of these recently published novels.

Ages 4–8

The Case of the Feathered Mask (The Mysteries of Maisie Hitchins #4). Holly Webb. Ill. Marion Lindsay. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

feathered_maskTwelve-year-old Maisie Hitchins is concerned when a rare tribal mask belonging to Professor Tobin, a lodger in her grandmother’s boarding house, is stolen on the eve of his special exhibit at the British Museum. How do a feather, a mysterious stranger, Dacre’s Museum of Curiosities, and a boy from the past tie into a story that began years ago in the Amazon? In this latest book in the series, amateur sleuth Maisie takes on new challenges to solve this crime, one clue at a time. Short, action-packed chapters, accompanied by pen-and-ink line drawings, make this an ideal book for newly independent readers, as well as an engaging read-aloud.

Hamster Holmes: On the Right Track (Hamster Holmes #3). Albin Sadar. Ill. Valerio Fabbretti. 2016. Simon Spotlight/Simon & Schuster.

hamster_holmesFamous inventor Springy Beaver thinks someone is stealing his ideas. Tools and notebooks have gone missing, and now he’s discovered paw prints in his workroom. Is the culprit after his secret invention? Hamster Holmes and Dr. Watt, his firefly sidekick who communicates using Morse Code by flashing his light on and off, are on the case. (Readers can use the Morse Code chart in Hamster Holmes’s office to decode what Dr. Watt is communicating in the cartoon illustrations of this Ready-to-Read book.) Holmes and Watt seem to be on the right track when they identify the culprit as a weasel, but the weasel prints turn out to be fake. Not to worry: With more sleuthing and clever deduction, Homes and Watt solve the case.

The Mystery of the Secret Society (Greetings From Somewhere #10). Harper Paris. Ill. Marcos Calo. 2016. Little Simon/Simon & Schuster.

mystery_secret_societyEight-year-old twins Ethan and Ella have just arrived in Greece with their parents. They soon are involved in more interesting things than sightseeing. After exploring the archaeological dig their parents are working on, the twins discover mysterious carvings on a tunnel wall. Why does the coin Ethan’s grandfather gave him match these carvings? What is behind the hidden door they unlock? What are they supposed to do with a secret notebook from the Society of Apollo? With short chapters, an abundance of illustrations, lively adventures, and just the right amount of danger, books in this series of mysteries the twins encounter as they travel around the world are perfect chapter books for beginning readers.

The Video Game Bandit (Hardy Boys Clue Book #1). Franklin W. Dixon. Ill. Matt David. 2016. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

video_game_banditThe Bayport Bandits baseball team is holding a fundraiser. When it’s time for bidding on the biggest prize, a ZCross5000 video game system, they discover the item has gone missing. Frank and Joe Hardy must work quickly to identify suspects and recover the ZCross5000 before all the team supporters leave the auction. On page 65, readers are challenged to solve the mystery of the video game bandit before they read the final chapter to find out whether they were as successful as the Hardy Boys in solving the case. In Book #2 of this new series, The Missing Playbook (2016), Frank and Joe solve the mystery of The Bayport Bandits’ missing secret playbook.

Ages 9–11

Doom at Grant’s Tomb (Eddie Red Undercover #3). Marcia Wells. Ill. Marcos Calo. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

grants_tombEddie Red, NYPD’s youngest undercover employee, uses his photographic memory and quick-draw artistic skills to solve crimes. When mysterious notes directed at Eddie are delivered to the police station, he is brought in to solve the mystery. How are a renowned art thief from Eddie’s past, the Irish Republican Army, the Trojan Horse, and a duchess connected? In cat-and-mouse code-breaking challenges from the illusive “Fox,” Eddie follows a trail of clues that take him to historical monuments and city landmarks to save lives and stop heists. This latest book in the Edgar-nominated mystery series, filled with maps and puzzles, will hold the attention of readers until the end. A short epilogue includes “How to Be a Cryptographer” instructions for breaking codes.

Friday Barnes Girl Detective (Friday Barnes #1). R.A. Spratt. Ill. Phil Gosier. 2016. Roaring Brook.

friday_barnesEleven-year-old Friday Barnes is a self-educated genius and a lover of mystery and detective stories. When Friday solves a jewelry theft, she uses the $50,000 reward for one year of tuition at Highcrest Academy, an elite boarding school. There she makes her first friend, her roommate, Melanie, and faces her first nemesis, the school’s previous top student, Iain Wainscott. Gaining a reputation for sleuthing by solving typical school-related mysteries, including proving that the school dog was responsible for eating a student’s missing homework, Friday takes on the case of a student-terrorizing yeti monster in a swamp on the school grounds. The mixing of plenty of humor with Friday’s erudite deductive skills makes this an engaging detective story. The surprising cliff-hanging ending will leave readers anxious for the next book in the series.

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. Beth Fantaskey. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

isabel_feeneyIsabel Feeney, 10-year-old newsgirl, dreams about becoming a writer like her hero, Maude Collier. When a murder occurs in the alley right next to her newsstand and her favorite customer, Miss Giddings, is a prime suspect, Isabel feels compelled to prove her innocence. Befriended by Maude Collier, the only female crime reporter at the Chicago Tribune, Isabel launches her own secret investigation. The more clues she uncovers, the more danger she faces as she inadvertently steps into the mobster scene of the 1920s. This mystery is a page-turner with plenty of clues to keep readers engaged. With its Historical Note at the end on female crime reporters from the 1920s, this mystery would be an interesting addition for Women’s History Month bookshelves in schools and libraries.

Ages 12–14

Defender. Graham McNamee. 2016. Wendy Lamb/Random House.

defenderTyne “Tiny” Greer, 6-foot-6 high school basketball star, is an unlikely person to solve a murder that occurred in “The Zoo,” the tenement where she lives with her mother and father, the building superintendent. Her focus is on getting a college sports scholarship, the only hope she has of escaping the poverty in which she has been raised. When she discovers a body in a crumbling basement wall, her father insists that she saw only a pile of trash and that side effects of pain pills she’s taking for a knee injury have caused her to hallucinate. Aided by Stick, her boyfriend, Tiny returns to the site for a closer look, delves into dangerous family secrets better left alone, and tips the delicate balance of her family dynamics.

The Lie Tree. Frances Hardinge. 2016. Amulet/Abrams.

The Lie Tree-US2Rev. Erasmus Sunderly, a gentleman natural scientist, has whisked his family away from Victorian London to the remote island of Vane, ostensibly to participate in an archaeological dig, but more likely to escape scandal involving an accusation of faking fossil finds. Fourteen-year-old Faith has a keen curiosity in her father’s work, but is discouraged from pursuits considered inappropriate for females. She is aware her father is in conflict with the men involved with the dig, and when he asks her to help spirit away one of his living specimens in a dark cave along the coast, she is eager to assist him. Soon after, Rev. Sunderly is found dead. Suicide? After examining his research notes about the Mendacity Tree (a tree that must be kept in the dark, grows when fed lies, and bears fruit that, when eaten, imparts secret truths), Faith sets out to use the hidden tree to prove that her father was murdered. The writing is beautiful, the setting is superbly developed, the characters are well rounded, and the story is a complex blending of fantasy and historical mystery. The Lie Tree is a satisfying read for readers age 12 and up.

Ages 15+

The Darkest Corners. Kara Thomas. 2016. Delacorte/Random House.

darkest_cornersWhen 17-year-old Tessa returns to her hometown for her father’s funeral, she reunites with her former best friend, Callie. Together, 10 years earlier, they identified the man who murdered Callie’s cousin and helped put him on death row. The girls haven’t spoken to each other since. Tessa, abandoned by her family and sent to live with her stern grandmother in another state after the trial, sees life through the lens of loss. Callie is popular but numbs herself with alcohol. What happens when Tessa and Callie finally speak about the events of that traumatic night in their young lives? What did they really see? Where are Tessa’s mother and sister, and how do they fit into the events of that night? Readers follow Tessa as she searches for the truth and discovers things about herself and others that she never expected right up to the final page of this dark thriller.

The Incident on the Bridge. Laura McNeal. 2016. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.

incident_on_the_bridgeWhen 17-year-old Thisbe’s car is found abandoned on the bridge, a witness reports seeing her standing near the guardrail. Everyone assumes that she committed suicide. There is no doubt that after Clay, a popular boy at her school, seduced and then dismissed her, Thisbe changed from a serious student to a lost party girl. But was that enough to prompt her to jump? What if she didn’t? Only her younger sister is adamant that Thisbe, who is afraid of heights and water, must still be alive somewhere. This well-written haunting novel, told from rotating points of view of key characters, layers in complicated teen and family relationships with each page turn.

The May Queen Murders. Sarah Jude. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

may_queen_murdersSixteen-year-old Ivy is from Rowan’s Glen, where people live shrouded in superstition. Shortly after Ivy discovers that her cousin Heather has a secret lover, Heather is discovered dead from belladonna poisoning. Ivy begins delving into her death. Other unexplained things are happening, too, like ritualistic slaughters of family pets and sightings of the legendary ghost, Birch Markle. After several more Glen girls are killed, the town is on lockdown even though the May Queen celebration is still scheduled for the first time in decades. As she explores the myths and relationships of those around her, Ivy finds she’s the next target. With twists and turns, the book takes readers down dark paths to learn the truth.

Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, CA. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.



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