Mysteries for teens, which is the YA market starting at age 12, so includes tweens, is an interesting genre. It combine suspense and sleuthing with all the teenage angst and social commentary you’d find in a regular young-adult novel. Mystery books for teens can have elements of different genres, such as dystopia, psychological thriller, and romance. They don’t need to be strictly about a crime.
As in other juvenile-market mysteries, the character solving the problems isn’t a professional detective, but a teen able to uncover clues that others can’t or don’t care enough to. With young adult books, the sky’s the limit with topics–unlike with books for younger kids, there’s no need to protect kids from the realities of the world. Violence, sex, death, bad parents –it’s all there.
But good mystery books for teens are far from lurid dime-store paperbacks; they’re explorations of the teen psyche, and help young adults process harsh reality. Their own reality is usually a lot less harsh, but fiction is rife with exaggeration for a purpose. It serves as a metapor, helping readers make sense of their own conflicts and desires.
One such example is NEED, aimed at kids age 12 and over, which takes a look at the dark side of social media. Clearly, the dark side isn’t fictional; online bullying has resulted in more than one death. The book shows how teens can become evil and almost zombie-like, obeying the demands of a social network.
One very popular, and good, mystery book for teens is John Green’s Paper Towns, winner of theEdgar Award for Best Mystery for Young Adults. It hooks you from the beginning with a sarcastic teen narrator’s keen observations of his high school peers. The writing really stands out with cleverness and keenly observed adolescent life.
YA is known for now being read by adults. Gone Girl is an example of crossover. The characters in it are older than teens, but they obey their less-than-mature impulses. The directness and emotional zap of YA pulls in those much older.
As well, YA attracts very talented writers. Characters in it can live in the most romantic, risky, and fantastical worlds. Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, main characters can occupy a vortex of hormones, humanity, and history or the future. So it’s no wonder that both authors and readers find teen books particularly appealing, and it’s not hard to find good mysteries for teens.
Books for teens and tweens are often read by those younger than the characters. The Rag and BoneShop is renowned author Roger Cormier’s last book. It even has a page on Wikipedia. The protagonist here is a boy of only 12 who’s caught up in a murder mystery as both suspect and sleuth. Being a Yeats fan, I love the title. So even though many teens can read like adults, remember that you’re writing for a pretty large age range. There are also YA books read largely by aduls, such as Gone Girl. That book could be considered to be part of the “new adult” genre targets 18 to 30-year-olds.
A Madness So Discreet is a juicy Gothic thriller, something like Girl, Interrupted if it took place in a Victorian asylum in Boston. It’s got historical fiction and social commentary on the treatment of the mentally ill and of women. Protagonist Grace’s sharp memory and powers of observation make her a potent teen sleuth despite her label of madness.
Tips for Writing Good Mysteries for Teens
Like other children’s mysteries, mystery stories for teens will sprinkle clues throughout. They will offer a natural-sounding summary (not a laundry list) of clues at the end.
Also, as with other juvenile fiction, YA tends to have at least a hopeful ending, no matter how filled with despair the story is. Even The Hunger Games ends with SOME hope, despite all the killing. Adult novels can end on a total downer note.
Voice is of paramount importance. You have to capture how teens really talk. Don’t use archaic slang. Learn texting symbols.
The reading age for YA is 12 and up. Kids will read about a character who is older, but are less likely to read about a character who’s younger.
Girls will read novels starring boys, but boys are less likely to read novels with girls as the main characters. Be sure to vary your cast with interesting and diverse secondary characters.
Remember to build suspense. Raise the stakes. The main character should have progress and reversals. Don’t let them get too beaten down. The reader needs to identify with them. And remember that familiar writing techniques such as Chekhov’s gun, red herrings, and Macguffins also apply to teen and tween suspense.
Don’t get preachy or moralistic. Just tell an involving story. Mysteries for teenagers can be plot-driven. They should touch on deeper aspects of a teenager’s life, but they don’t have to deliver a moral or message.
Da-dah-DUNNH! The concept of mystery books for kids written at picture-book level may seem counterintuitive at first. Mysteries are by nature complex, right, so how could they work as picture books? This is especially perplexing for authors trying to create the short texts publishers demand these days.
One way to create a mystery for this age is with illustrations playing a major role, often to have the illustrations telling the story beyond the text–possibly leaving clues the intrepid investigator misses at first.
If you’re an author submitting picture book manuscripts, you’re told to leave out as many art notes as possible. But you can have them when they are essential to understanding the story.
Others construct the mystery combining text and pictures, and others tell the whole story in text, with the pictures adding to the fun.
Mystery picture books often use humor and spoof. The ABC Mystery, by Doug Cushman, is a funny, rhyming, alphabet mystery.
Miss Nelson is Missing is a classic from the 1970s and one of my favorites. Sweet teacher Miss Nelson, who has been facing a misbehaving bunch of students, suddenly disappears and is replaced by the witchy Viola Swamp, who defies the stereotype of a substitute teacher who can be taken advantage of. What has become of Miss Nelson? Detective McSmaug is on the case. With a witty text by Harry Allard and hilarious illustrations by James Marshall, this book still makes me laugh even after multiple readings.
You can enjoy it here in a YouTube readalong.
You’ll notice that there really aren’t any clues, nor does the reader know the answer ’til the end, though some may figure it out (I didn’t). It’s not written in a tongue-in-cheek, hard-boiled detective voice. But it still builds considerable suspense. The tension increases as we watch the rowdy class transform into a frightened, obedient one.
Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? by Bonnie Lass and Philomena Sturges, and illustrated by Ashley Wolff, uses the schoolyard rhyme to tell a mystery tale. Skunk interviews other animals, all of the American Southwest, to find the culprit. Naturally, each has an alibi. But the reader can pick up some clues. This book is a lot of fun for very young kids and even comes with a song and game instructions. This is one of the mystery books for kids that drops some clues in the illustrations.
Steven Kellogg’s The Missing Mitten Mystery has stood the test of time. It’s a very simple story about a girl and dog searching for a missing mitten. The girl imagines increasingly unrealistic things that could have happened to it, such as the possibility of it someday growing into a mitten tree. Eventually they find it, but there’s no clear answer to how it got where it got. Whether or not you feel the end is satisfying, it shows how a child’s imagination can be sparked. The illustrations don’t tell a different story than the text.
Unlike most chapter book and middle-grade mystery books for kids, picture book mysteries still deal with larger themes, the way non-mystery picture books do. The mystery category isn’t quite as distinct in picture books. Still, they are more plot-driven than a lot of picture books.
One that really cracks me up is The Mystery of Eatum Hall, that’s both a mystery and sendup of a horror story. Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler, a pig and a goose receive a mysterious invitation, and are fattened up by high-tech inventions at a mysterious place. Despite clues, the couple is clueless. This book is full of puns and delightful.
There’s also Grandpa’s Teeth, one of those old-books that involves a whole town, the media, and a grandpa who talkths like thith because his teeth are missing. It has wonderful illustrations.
Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back is a very short text where the illustrations tell things that are not known to the character. It’s a fun mystery book for kids who may not even be of reading age. In fact, it has appeal for all ages, because readers like to feel like they know more than the character, who in this case is quite oblivious to obvious clues.
Eileen Christelow’s The Great Pig Search is also a picture book with mystery elements that will give plenty of giggles to kids 4 to 7 and is a good choice if you’re looking for mystery books for kindergarteners. Here, as in I Want My Hat Back, the reader knows more than the silly main characters, in this case adults. The reader gets to feel smarter than they are. In most mystery books for kids, the child mystery-solver is smarter than the adults around her or him.
More traditional types of illustrated kids’ mystery stories that have longer texts and are spoofs of Sherlock Holmes or film noir include the Ace Lacewing books, by David Biedrzycki, and Mark Teague’s Detective LaRue: Letters from the Investigation. Those would be good mysery books for kids who can read on their own some, such as kindergarteners to third grade.
There are so many great picture book mysteries that it was really hard to pick from them–though I think there’s plenty of room for more. There’s one about a missing library book–I can’t remember the name of it– but it’s a clever idea and is well done.
I’d love to hear about other favorite mystery picture books.
-Mystery books for kids under age 7 can rely a lot on artwork to tell the story.
-Picture book mysteries are more plot-driven than most picture books. Character development is not the main thing, nor is a deeper theme, though they can touch on deeper themes.
-A picture book mystery can take traditional picture book formats, such as using songs, alphabet books, rhymes, and detective types of stories.
These books, with their elements of suspense, are, like the best picture books, enjoyable for adults as well.
Mystery Books for Kids: Chapter Book and Middle Grade Mysteries
Mystery books for kids hook young readers from the get-go. What kid doesn’t love invisible ink, tapping out codes, and deducing their way to snaring a villain? Sleuthing makes kids feel grown up. Children are trying to figure out their own world, and will identify with a strong character who’s successfully figuring out theirs. A detective is a hero, almost a superhero, but without superpowers or magic, thus kids can imagine really attaining detective status. Mysteries are a natural match for curious youngsters.
The major mystery writer awards have not ignored the books for young readers market. The Edgar Awards, named after Edgar Allen Poe, issues awards in different categories each year, including Best Juvenile Mystery Fiction. In addition to that is the Young Adult Edgar Award. Young adult books don’t shy away from mayhem and murder, whereas with picture book mysteries, there might be a plot about missing cookies.
Another mystery writing award is the Agatha award, named, of course, after Agatha Christie. This award goes to “cozy” mysteries that don’t have sex or violence, making them a natural fit for books for youngsters. Unlike the Edgar, the Agatha doesn’t have a different category for Young Adult, instead having just one category for Best Children’s/Young Adult Mystery. This is more doable because of the relative wholesomeness of the nominees.
The classic mystery books for kids, of course, are the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. But contemporary authors continue to create unique and gripping tales of intrigue.
Middle Grade Mystery Books
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, won the Caldecott for illustration, but the writing is equally strong. The remarkable approach to storytelling puts the book in a class by itself. Utilizing text, filmic techniques, and detailed charcoal graphic novel-style illustrations, the book leads the reader into a rich world of a poor boy in 1930s Paris who lives in a wall and is obsessed with finding the secrets of an automaton. It has been made into a movie, Hugo, directed by Martin Scorcese. It’s heavily illustrated but not a traditional picture book and it’s not aimed at very young kids. If you’re looking for well-imagined mystery books for fourth-graders and up, this is a good pick, and one adults would also enjoy for its artistry. The reading level is listed as for ages 9-12.
Here are some more winners in the world of contemporary chapter book mysteries. Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong series is named for its characters and, Daisy Wells, a proper British girl, and Hazel Wong, a nervous girl who’s just arrived from Hong Kong. Being for the upper end of the chapter book age, it’s got killing. It’s set in 1930s London and has loads of wit, humor, and intrigue. Murder Most Unladylike is the first book in the series.
The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd, features a brother and sister pair forced to turn sleuth when their cousin, Salim, mysteriously disappears on the London Eye, a large Ferris wheel. Ted, who has Asperger’s, is the star here and the story is told from his vantage point. He uses his condition to solve the clues in this carefully plotted tale.
The Puzzling World of Winston Wong, the first book of a popular middle-grade series by Eric Berlin, whose other job has been crossword-puzzle writer for The New York Times. As you can imagine, puzzles are a big part. The main character is a puzzle-loving kids who gets perplexing visits from strangers once he gets a puzzle for his birthday. It’s suspenseful, fun, and kids get a real brain workout.
To Catch a Cheat, by Varian Johnson, is the sequel to The Great Greene Heist, the first in the Jackson Greene series. It features a diverse cast, each character having a unique skill set as well as lots of personality. Not only that, but Jackson, is a charming, athletic middle-grade con artist–not your typical all-good guy. The quick, elegant plotting has been compared to Ocean’s Eleven.
As you can see, contemporary mysteries for this age group are more varied in their characters, have more multicultural characters, even anti-heroes, and characters diagnosed with conditions.
Classic Middle-Grade Mysteries. A classic mystery for middle-grade readers is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s one of my favorites and one that I most vividly remember from childhood. In it, two children run away from home and go live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The older sister is after elegance and brings her little brother along. They end up getting embroiled in a mystery involving an angel sculpture. But what feels like the best wish fulfillment is them living in the sumptuous museum and having the run of the place. The kids are empowered and important, and take the front seat; Mrs. Frankweiler is not like a parent, but a character of intrigue.
Some people refer to another forever classic, Harriet the Spy, as a mystery, but though it has mystery elements and spying, I wouldn’t characterize it as a mystery book.
Who can forget Donald J. Sobol’s riveting, humorous kids’ mystery series about a boy detective, Encyclopedia Brown?
Encyclopedia Brown was a human Wikipedia. He’d solve cases his police chief dad could not. Like all good children’s books, children live in a world separate from adults, a world in which the kids are in charge and adults are pretty much oblivious. Encyclopedia Brown is good if you’re looking for mystery books for fourth grade and fifth grade, and some younger kids might like it too. Each book is packed with ten stories. See more info on the series at Wikipedia.
The Nate the Great series takes a tongue-in-cheek, Sherlock Holmes, or maybe Columbo approach. This hilarious series started in 1972. Marc Simont, one of my favorites, was the illustrator. Jody Wheeler later took the reins. I love the classic illustration style.
The droll, dry humor has a dash of absurdity. Nate the Great fits well into the Common Core curriculum for its engaging approach to problem-solving.
Kids reading chapter books are in the “golden age of reading” and can’t get enough, so mystery series for kids ages 7-9 for younger kids just starting chapter books, and 9-12 for older kids, are very popular and can be written and illustrated as franchises by generations of authors and illustrators.
Cam Jansen books are aimed at grades 3 to 7, but could be read out loud to children as young as age 4. The clues are there for the reader to notice and solve. They’re easier than the Encyclopedia Brown clues, which sometime are a bit arcane. The author, David J. Adler, had been a math teacher. He says he thinks of the books as math problems. He thinks of visual clues that the reader can solve.
Cam had a photographic memory, a talent somewhat like Encyclopedia Brown’s encyclopedic knowledge. She might not go after killers, but it takes just as much brains to find out who stole bones from the dinosaur skeleton in the museum. The stories move quickly and are suspenseful–think Chekhov’s chocolate fudge. Kids can have fun “taking pictures” with their eyes the way Cam does. There’s also a picture book series starring Cam, called Young Cam Jansen.
Things to keep in mind when penning sleuths for youths:
Mystery books for kids put adults in the backseat.
A tenet of good writing for children that adults stay in the background. That’s why so many children’s novels star orphans or runaways. It’s easy to see why this is important in a mystery. The child identifies with the detective, the one leading the investigation. They are smarter than both the crooks and other adults around them. Readers will feel good relating to these clever characters, and gain a sense of control by sleuthing out clues.
Kids’ mystery books build suspense around “small” things.
Kids’ mystery stories aimed at younger children don’t deal in violence. A lot of suspense is built up all the same. We as adult sometimes think we need to be scared or feel that a life is on the line. But you can be on a tense roller coaster ride of a story that’s about something as small as a missing baseball. A missing pet can cause great emotional concern. Mystery books for kids can be counted on to have a happy ending.
Children’s mystery stories are not just about plot.
Mysteries by nature revolve around plot, whereas some picture books for very small kids pretty much dispense with plot and put more emphasis on character and story. But even mystery picture books need strong characters and a story with heart.
Character is what drives plot–think of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes in adult mysteries. Though they get entangled with plot, they are what you come away with. Columbo wasn’t called “A Series of Crimes,” it was called Columbo. And Encyclopedia Brown was the character young readers wanted to be. But in mystery chapter and middle-grade books, the hero does not necessarily undergo an emotional change, as in other children’s fiction. They emerge the same person, ready for the next installment. This doesn’t mean the books lack heart–there is always kindness and emotion. The reader can fret over a missing cat or injustices that get uncovered. Mysteries bring out empathy in the reader, and relief when the caring hero saves the day.
Cam Jansen’s photographic memory and Encyclopedia Brown’s amazing memory for facts are quirks that make them special and drive the story. Their powers of observation inspire kids to pay attention to what’s around them to see what little-noticed things might reveal.
Modern life with its complications is a mystery in itself–how did everything change so much because of the Internet? Why is it when we call the phone company, we talk to someone in India? But it’s all more fodder for authors to come up with ever more clever, fun, and gripping mystery tales for kids.