Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kids’ Mysteries

Sharon Wildwind

Kids are as mysterious to me the traveling to the outer rim of the universe, maybe more so because at least I have a through grounding in Star Trek and have learned that if you wave you hands hard enough, you can reach the outer rim. The problem is getting back. Just ask Captain Janeway.

Never mind. I digress. Okay, me and kids.

Later this month I’ll have a table at a book fair. The library sponsoring the fair wants to attract more kids to reading. The organizers asked that each participant have at least one activity or take-away for kids at her table.

That threw me. Whatever was I going to do?

Earlier this year, I happened upon a book, What Really Happened to Humpty? by Jeannie Franz Ransom. (Charlesbridge Press, 2009) Joe Dumpty is a hard-boiled egg. No, I’m not trying to find a new way to describe a noir detective, he really is an egg, with a yolk and a shell, and everything. And he’s a detective, who is trying to find out the real real truth behind his brother Humpty’s near-fatal collapse. Mother Goose is the Chief of Police and nursery rhyme characters, the suspects.

That gave me a clue that there might be a whole range of mystery books for children that so far hadn’t made it over my event horizon.

For very young readers—or perhaps young lookers since these are picture books—I found a charming bunch of characters: a cloud that wants to be a policeman; an insect who tells puns while he solves crimes; a vet clinic where while an animal control officer and vet work to save sick and injured animals, the other animals at the clinic provide their own brand of healing; and the finest (okay, he’s the only) lizard detective in an elementary school.

As the books move grades 4 to 6 level, a common theme seems to be art. I found several both stand-alone and series mysteries where the children have some connection to the art world and the mystery revolves around finding stolen art treasures.

Summer themes are also popular, whether it’s kids who are spending the summer with a distant relative, going on vacation, or working at summer jobs. Summer will end sooner than most kids want, and that builds in a time pressure that works well in these books.

Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes as a boy is also popular and some authors have expanded this to include previously unknown Holmesian relatives, such as younger sisters and great-great-grandchildren. Okay, I know according to THE CANNON Holmes never had children, so how can their be great-great-grandchildren? Wave you hands very fast and pretend you are traveling to the outer rim of the universe.

Even for 11- or 12-year-olds, more serious themes start to sneak into these books. A girl solves the mystery of where her grandfather disappears to every day, but solving the mystery is only the beginning of her problems. An 11-year-old must fight an evil presence that her parents accidently unleashed at their archeology museum.

I have mixed feelings about this. Is an innocent childhood desirable or have 11-year-old children already figured out that world isn’t always a kind and loving place? Are books one way to open discussions about what human beings do to one another?

In the latter vein, there is a large series promoted by the American Girl merchandising line. Books by various authors, with various characters, and settings, tackle difficult historical issues, such as being the child of a freed slave in the late 1800s and the restrictions on Chinese immigration for women.

Not surprisingly considering the gargantuan success of Harry Potter and Twilight, once you get to about grade 6, ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural increase in popularity.

Oh, and the fusion of books and the Internet has arrived in The Armanda Project. This is a collaborative, interactive mystery series for girls. Part of the story is in the book and part is on the web site. You can’t solve this one without chatting with other readers.

By grade 8, the themes are often the same as in adult books: finding abducted children, neighbors murdering their husbands, family tragedies, the dark side of small towns, and moms marrying dirty cops. That was the level where I chose to stop, but I will say that there are even darker stories out there for high school students.

I think I prefer clouds who want to be police officers.

If you would like a copy of the short bibliography of mysteries for kids that I’ve assembled—and will be giving away at the book fair—send me e-mail. Soon the bibliography will be on my web site, but the site is under reconstruction right now, so you’ll have to wait a few weeks for that.
Quote for the week:
Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.
~Marilyn Jager Adams, psychologist and researcher in how children and adults learn to read


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

There's a discussion going on right now on the EMWA e-list about how both Disney and many, many mysteries for kids have a dead mother. Same goes for folk tales and fairy tales. The underlying assumption is that adventures and bad things happen only to children who lack the protection of a mother.

Anonymous said...

Or as a counter-theory, particularly re the movies, how many more plot lines you can have by bringing in romantic lines for the widowed father.