Readers’ Advisory: Mystery Books for Inquiring Minds
by Lisa Bintrim
The days are getting shorter, fall foliage is giving way to bare trees, and there’s a chill in the air. It’s the perfect time of year to cozy up to a good mystery. LibrarySparks writer Megan Schliesman, from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), shares some of her favorite mystery books for kids.
So Many Books … So Little Time
Mac Barnett’s picture book Extra Yarn is an original tale about a little girl named Annabelle who finds a box full of yarn that never empties. She knits sweaters for everyone she knows, and then she knits “sweaters for things that didn’t even wear sweaters.” Soon everything in her once drab, dismal town, from bare winter trees to houses and cars, wears a nubby coat of color. Word spreads, and it isn’t long before an archduke arrives, wanting to buy the box of yarn. When Annabelle declines his offer, the archduke steals it. But when he gets back home, the box is empty. “You will never be happy again!” he curses, thinking of Annabelle as he throws the box out his castle window.
The box, however, knows exactly to whom it belongs, and it isn’t long before Annabelle is in possession of it once more.
That’s the mystery of this whimsical, wonderfully paced story that knits its own kind of magic.
Extra Yarn invites the same kind of speculation and critical thinking that real-life mysteries and problem solving demand.
Children are active participants in ongoing scientific research projects in Loree Griffin Burns’s photo documentary Citizen Scientists. Burns’s enthusiasm is infectious as she describes 4 different projects involving “citizen scientists:” butterfly tagging in fall, bird counting in winter, frog-call monitoring in spring and ladybug counting in summer. Each project is covered in 3 parts: a second-person narrative with photos that places readers in the field; a profile of one or more kids involved in the project; and a “When You Go” section offering practical tips for heading into the backyard … or the wild.
If there had been a “citizen scientist” project involving fossils in the mid-nineteenth century, chances are young Barnum Brown would have participated. In the lively picture book Barnum’s Bones, Tracey E. Fern introduces one of the best dinosaur hunters of all time. Born in 1873, Barnum Brown loved fossils from the time he could toddle, when he would follow his father’s plow on their Kansas fields and pick up “ancient corals and clams and snails and scallops.” Barnum developed a reputation from early adulthood as someone who had a knack for finding bones, and Professor Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History hired him.
It was more than passion that led to Barnum’s success, however. Like any good detective, he did his research, poring over books and maps to determine the places for digging in the field. His greatest discovery was T. Rex — a new species of dinosaur! — and he helped the museum amass the largest collection of dinosaur bones in the world.
Some readers may be intrigued by real-world detectives, like Barnum Brown and the citizen scientists. Others like nothing better than getting lost inside a fiction writer’s imagination. When that imagination is full of mystery and intrigue, it’s all the better.
There are multiple mysteries in W. H. Beck’s novel Malcolm at Midnight, a fresh, original animal fantasy set in a human elementary school. Malcolm the rat is the new pet of Room 11 and the newest pledge of the Midnight Academy, a group of classroom pets that works to keep the school safe. When Aggy the Iguana, head of the academy, disappears, Malcolm is determined to find her. As he searches, the mysteries of a missing ring belonging to the Room 11 teacher, Mr. Binney, but intended for the school custodian, Ms. Brumble, and the story behind a bitter stray cat on the fourth floor of the school also are revealed. Everything’s connected in this irresistible offering that would make a terrific classroom read-aloud.
Blue Balliett’s most recent mystery story, Hold Fast, has a cryptic opening chapter that sets the stage for a mystery with serious undertones. Early’s father, Dash, has disappeared on his way home from work at the Chicago Public Library. It soon becomes clear that Dash’s disappearance is linked to the extra work he was doing helping process donated books. Dash thought all was aboveboard, but the police are quick to assume the missing man was involved in a crime. The more Early tries to discover what happened, the clearer it becomes that, although Dash may be innocent, something criminal was going on.
The mystery element of this novel is classic Blue Balliett: Smart, observant Early must figure out a way to understand numerical patterns and wordplay in hopes of solving her dad’s disappearance. But at its heart, this story is an affecting look at the plight of homelessness and the power of dreams. Early, her little brother, and their mother end up in a shelter without Dash’s income, and the reality and emotional impact of life without a permanent home are poignantly portrayed through vivid, child-centered details. At the same time, Early has been raised in a family of dreamers who believe in aiming high and then working hard to achieve what they envision. The Langston Hughes poem “Dreams” is their touchstone, and its message proves transformative for Early.
Like Balliett’s other stories, Hold Fast has a feel-good ending full of optimism. It’s not the most realistic dimension of the novel, but it’s one to embrace. Because sometimes, the clear-seeing, unjaded eyes of a child can look at old problems in new ways — seeing possibilities rather than barriers, offering hope rather than hopelessness. As to whether our hearts respond — that’s a mystery always worth exploring.