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Detectives, Sleuths, and Spies: Mystery and Detective Stories

By Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
 | Oct 01, 2018

From picture books and early chapter books in which cases are solved by clever animal detectives to novels involving the sleuthing (and even spying) of young people, the well-crafted “whodunits” highlighted in this week’s column will have readers using their own powers of detection as mysteries are solved.

Ages 4–8

Baby Monkey, Private Eye. Brian Selznick & David Serlin. Ill. Brian Selznick. 2018. Scholastic.

Baby Monkey“Who is Baby Monkey?” “He is a baby. He is a monkey. He has a job . . .” And, as this innovative fusion of picture book, graphic novel, and beginning reader clearly shows, he’s good at this job of being a private detective. Brian Selznick and David Serlin’s simple, patterned text and Selznick’s fascinating black-and-white drawings reveal how Baby Monkey solves cases involving the missing jewels of an opera singer, the pie of a pizza maker, the nose of a clown, and the spaceship of an astronaut before taking on a most important case involving reuniting a mother with her baby. The décor of Baby Monkey’s office changes as each new client enters, and young and old can extend the fun of repeated readings by identifying items seen in the illustrations for each chapter by using the appended key to Baby Monkey’s office and the index. Adults sharing this book with children will get an extra chuckle over the clever, invented bibliography.

A Case for Buffy (Detective Gordon #4). Ulf Nilsson. Trans. Julia Marshall. Ill. Gitte Spee. 2018. Gecko.

A Case for BuffyAt their small police station in a forest, Detective Gordon (an old toad) and Detective Buffy (a young mouse) have started a small police school. Their two police students, Sune (a baby toad) and Gertrude (a baby mouse) enthusiastically join the two detectives in their most challenging case to date: the search for Buffy’s mother from whom she was separated when she fled from a fox that attacked her family. Donning their spiffy police hats and energized by Buffy’s singing  (“Tramp, tramp, tramp and tramp./ Tramp, tramp and trampety-tramp.”) the four set out for Cave Island and pool their investigative skills to outfox the fox and rescue Buffy’s mother and 14 siblings. After they all return home to the forest, Gordon takes a nap and Buffy and the small police write up the report on the case and stamp it closed with a “KLA-DUNK. KLA-DUNK” in a fitting closing to this charming series.

The Detective Dog. Julia Donaldson. Ill. Sara Ogilvie. 2018. Godwin/Henry Holt.

The Detective DogDetective Dog Nell uses her keen sense of smell to solve neighborhood crimes and locate missing items from Tuesday through Sunday, but on Monday she goes to school with her human, 6-year-old Peter, to listen to stories the children read to her and enjoy the classroom smells, especially the smell of books. One Monday, however, all the books are gone. The humorous rhyming text and colorful, detailed illustrations invite young readers to accompany Nell as she sniffs out a clue (a cap left on the bookshelf) and follows the smells of a man and books to a backyard where the thief is found reading their books. He sadly confesses, “Stealing is wrong—but I just meant to borrow. / I was planning to give all the books back tomorrow.” Clever Nell barks the perfect solution: Taking Ted, the thief, to the library to get a library card.

King & Kayla and the Case of the Lost Tooth (King & Kayla #4). Dori Hillestad Butler. Ill. Nancy Meyers. 2018. Peachtree.

King & KaylaThe detective duo, King and Kayla, work together to solve another case as Kayla opens her class’s tooth fairy pillow and finds the tooth she lost at school missing. While Kayla employs reasoning, making lists of what she does and doesn’t know about its disappearance, King uses his nose to uncover clues (there’s the distinct aroma of turkey sandwiches on the pillow). Young readers will enjoy this story in beginning-chapter-book format told from King’s viewpoint and the way in which the humorous cartoonlike illustrations show how the golden retriever recovers Kayla’s missing tooth in a decidedly puppylike manner.

Ages 9–11

The Art of the Swap. Kristine Asselin & Jen Malone. 2018. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

The Art of the SwapIn this historical fantasy, 12-year-olds Hannah Jordon, who considers herself an export on the Elms, a mansion and museum in Newport, Rhode Island, and heiress Maggie Dunlap, who lived there in 1905 when her portrait by artist Mary Cassatt disappeared right before the unveiling, swap places through a magic mirror portal. As the girls experience the differences that a century makes in the evolution of society and women’s rights, Hannah discovers that she can’t undo the heist before the big reveal, even when she’s learned what really happened, without changing history and their exits back home. Authors’ notes describe the writing process and include resources on The Elms and the Gilded Age, as well as the fight for women’s equality.

Arts and Thefts (MAX). Allison K. Hymas. 2018. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

Arts and TheftMiddle school students Jeremy Wilderson, a retrieval specialist who returns lost and stolen items to his clients, and his nemesis, Becca Mills, an impetuous detective who solves crimes, team up during the Scottsville Summer Art Show and Competition to stop whoever is sabotaging the event. If Jeremy’s two best friends, Case (who has a painting in the contest) and Hack (who has great technology skills) discover his betrayal in working alongside Becca, his friendships and retrieval business will be on the line. Moreover, Becca believes Jeremy, Case, and Hack are the culprits trashing the show’s top contender—and she can’t wait to expose them. Readers will want to catch up with the Under Locker and Key (2017), if they missed it, while waiting for the release of the third book in this clever mystery series.

Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans (Samantha Spinner #1).Russell Ginns. Ill. Barbara Fisinger. 2018. Delacorte/Random House.

Samantha SpinnerWhen Uncle Paul vanished, leaving her teen sister 2.4 billion dollars, her 8-year-old brother the New York Yankees, and their dog a jewel-studded collar, 11-year-old Samantha Spinner received an old red umbrella that turned out to house a map of secret portals to places around the world. Pursued by stinky ninjas from the Parisian sewers who want the map, Samantha and her brother, accompanied by their pug, cross the world solving mysteries in search of their uncle, whom they believe is still alive, in a wild adventure story that includes Samantha’s journal entries and intriguing puzzle clues. Back matter includes facts, word searches, codes, messages, enigmas, and more. More adventures are coming in Samantha Spinner and the Spectacular Specs, due spring 2019.

Ages 12–14

The House in Poplar Wood. K. E. Ormsbee. 2018. Chronicle.

The House in Popular Wood“The Agreement” specified that the house in Poplar Wood would forever be divided, with Felix Vickery living with his father and Death on the east side and his twin, Lee, living with his mother and Memory on the west side. The parents were never to see each other for the rest of their lives. Felix can never see his mother, and Lee can never see his father, although the twins can meet on the porch. While Memory allows Lee to attend the local school, Death keeps a tighter rein on Felix, who can only leave the house on Halloween. As apprentices-in-training, their last hope of not having to sign on with the Devil and Memory at age 16 comes from Gretchen Whipple, the daughter of the town’s mayor and summoner (whose is supposed to protect the town by keeping the powers of the Shades— the Devil, Memory, and Passion—in check). Gretchen agrees to help them break the Agreement if they help her solve the mystery surrounding the death of Essie Hastings, but with Death involved things will get dangerous—or even deadly. Fans of fantastical mysteries will find this novel eerie, suspenseful, and totally satisfying.

The Misfits Club. Kieran Crowley. 2018. Feiwel and Friends.

The Misfits ClubAfter four years, The Misfits, a club begun when they were only 8 years old, is about to split up, but there is time for one last adventure in their hometown of Newpark, where boring is a way of life. Brian, Hannah, the twins, and Amelia (who has been banished to live in Newpark with her grandma for the summer) happen upon a real-life mystery that involves stolen goods and dangerous thieves. When no one believes what The Misfits have uncovered, it is up to them to bring the criminal gang to justice in a hilarious turn of events that includes a honey badger to the rescue. Interspersed with Amelia’s journal entries and newspaper articles, this mystery is sure to intrigue middle school readers.

Ages 15+

Orphan Monster Spy. Matt Killeen. 2018. Viking/Penguin.

Orphan Monster SpyIn 1939 Nazi Germany, 15-year-old blonde, blue-eyed Sarah is on the run after her Jewish mother is shot and killed at a checkpoint trying to get her to safety. Befriended by a mysterious man, the Captain (also known by the name, among others, of Helmut Heller), who enlists her to work for him, Sarah lives a double life of intrigue and danger as Ursula Heller, student and spy, in an elite and cruel boarding school with daughters of Nazi leaders. Even if her mission to retrieve a notebook with blueprints of a bomb designed by a Nazi scientist that could destroy much of Western Europe succeeds by befriending his daughter, Elsa Schäfer, succeeds, can she trust the man who recruited her—and will it be enough to make up for the loss of her family and country? 

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

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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