I suppose it’s awfully biased for someone who writes middle grade mysteries to think they’re a wonderful reading choice for the age group. But aren’t they?
Not only do mysteries feed kids’ preoccupation with fairness and hypocrisy, but amid all the entertaining hijinks and plot twists, mysteries also offer children a way to question the adult world and discover where they fit into it. They may be reading about dangerous fugitives, but they’re also slowly solving the puzzle of who they are.
Best of all, middle grade mysteries feature empowering characters whose sharp wits, logic, and perseverance are just as important as their daring.
While there’s plenty to appreciate about good ’ol Nancy Drew (and her famous titian hair!), the landscape of children’s literature has plenty more to offer in the way of clever, adventurous sleuths.
Here are ten of my favorites:
1. Kiki Strike
(from Kirsten Miller’s Kiki Strike series)
Vespa-riding, café au lait-sipping Kiki Strike might be tiny, but her daring and smarts make this super sleuth larger-than-life. Multi-lingual and trained in martial arts, she leads a band of delinquent girl scouts on thrilling hijinks involving underground cities, international royalty…and millions of hungry rats. If you haven’t discovered Miller’s series, now’s the perfect time: the third book, The Darkness Dwellers just came out. While the latest installment is billed as YA, all three books are perfect reads for middle-schoolers who want the sophistication and thrills of books for older readers but who could care less about love triangles.
2. Turtle Wexler
(from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin)
I can’t write a list of top ten middle grade sleuths and not include sassy, shin-kicking, hilarious Turtle Wexler whose intelligence and perseverance helps her sort through sixteen suspects and crack a very difficult code. Raskin might have written the book in the ’70s, but Turtle’s verve and the complex mystery pleases kids just as much today.
3. Mo LeBeau
(from Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage)
Three Times Lucky is a modern classic, as far as I’m concerned – and so is 11-year old heroine Moses LeBeau. Full of spunk and Southern charm and feistiness, Mo isn’t just a sharp sleuth who solves Mr. Jesse’s murder, but she’s also a colorful storyteller who knows how to spin a masterful yarn.
4. Reynie Muldoon
(from The Mysterious Benedict Society books by Trenton Lee Stewart)
“Average-looking” Reynie Muldoon is anything but average—he’s a puzzle-solving genius and, as his full name “Reynard” suggests, he’s as clever as a fox. Reynie doubts himself, wrestles with ethical dilemmas, and worries about his friendships all while using his intelligence to bring down a mastermind bent on world destruction. His investigative partners are equally clever. The Mysterious Benedict Society books are accessible to younger readers, but have wonderfully high stakes that make them thrilling to older kids (and adults, I dare say).
5. Malcolm the Rat
(from Malcolm at Midnight by W.H. Beck)
I fell in love with Malcolm in 2011 when I read an early draft of this wonderful, big-hearted mystery about a midnight society of classroom pets who blame newcomer Malcolm for the disappearance of one of their own. Forced to clear his name, Malcolm is a nervous, unlikely sleuth. However, as he valiantly takes on thrilling midnight school adventures, he proves himself to be “a rat of merit and valor,” just as he’d hoped. Malcolm’s endearing character has stuck with me, and I’m so glad the book is out in the world for everyone to enjoy. Perfect for elementary school kids who are ready for more challenging reading but not necessarily the scary situations that come along with it.
6. Enola Holmes
(from Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series)
Enola Holmes might not be as logical and analytical as her much older brother Sherlock, but what she lacks in traditional sleuthing talent she makes up for with her resourcefulness and determination as she solves missing person cases in Victorian London. It’s wonderful to follow Enola’s adventures as she emerges from the shadow of her famous brother and learns to take herself seriously.
7. Miranda Sinclair
(from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead)
I may be fudging it here to include Miranda from Stead’s 2010 genre-defying Newbery-winner on a list of sleuths. But while she isn’t a detective in a traditional sense, her empathy and thoughtfulness lead her to solve a puzzling mystery and save someone’s life in the process. In some senses, Miranda reminds me of another favorite of mine, Harriet the Spy—a deep-thinking character who’s preoccupied with solving the deeper puzzles of life itself. No fast-paced spy hijinks here, but a wonderful sleuth for the precocious, introspective set.
8. Lewis Barnavelt
(from The House with a Clock in its Walls—and many more—by John Bellairs)
Before “middle grade” was even called “middle grade,” there was John Bellairs, whose terrifying gothic mysteries were childhood favorites of mine. Lewis Barnavelt — pudgy and nervous and not nearly as brave as he best friend Rose Rita–is an unlikely hero, but that’s what makes it all the more fun when he triumphs.
9. Bethesda Fielding
(from The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and The Mystery of the Missing Everything by Ben H. Winters)
Overachieving seventh grader Bethesda Fielding is an ace school detective who is equally at home uncovering her music teacher’s secret as she is tracking down missing school trophies. Charismatic and relentlessly curious, Bethesda makes plenty of mistakes and learns about her limitations in these funny, fast-paced mysteries. Winters’ tongue-in-cheek tone and true-to-life school details really resonate with my students, especially.
10. Rico Doretti
(from The Spaghetti Detectives by Andreas Steinhoefel)
Rico Doretti struggles with learning differences, but his powers of observation and deduction rival Sherlock Holmes’. His mom calls him a “proddity” because while he makes astute conclusions, he takes a long time to arrive at them—and even forgets them sometimes! Still, he and his quirky friend Oscar bring down a kidnapper. This book won the equivalent of the Newbery in Germany; it’s a wonderfully layered mystery that packs an emotional punch. American readers might be surprised by some of the content (kidnapper!?), but it’s still very much middle grade.
It’s so hard to limit my favorites to just ten. If you’re looking for some recently released mysteries, some of my favorites of the past year were Kate Messner’sCapture the Flag, Nikki Loftin’s The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, and Claire LeGrand’s splendidly creepy The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.
Now it’s time I turn my attention back to my own mystery writing and reading. Many thanks for letting me crash the Nerdy party!
Kristen Kittscher is a writing tutor in Pasadena, California where she lives with her husband, Kai. A graduate of Brown University and former middle school English teacher, she now writes funny mysteries for the precocious middle-schoolers she enjoyed teaching so much. Her debut novel, THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, comes out from Harper Children’s in June 2013. She’s busily at work on its sequel, THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE. Stop by and say hello at her website, on Twitter, or Facebook.