Dragons, time travel, and magic bake shops dominate the middle grade reader display month after month. For the most part this collection of silly, magical, and not-too-scary stories does the trick for the kids who look to me for advice at the Island Books counter. But occasionally a real mystery fan comes along, or more often a kid trying to cover all the required genres for a school reading list. There’s a reason that category is always left to the end, namely because there just hasn’t been a very good selection of mysteries for kids in a long time. Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, and the Hardy Boys can only go so far, though they are the real deal when it comes to good whodunits.
The mysteries I manage to recommend are usually imbedded in a fantasy adventure book or a piece of good general fiction, when a slightly unknown piece of plot business becomes clear at the end of the story. So imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing our newly curated collection of middle-grade readers literally piled with straight-up mysteries for kids:
- Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, in which Theodora Tenpenny accidentally uncovers a painting that may be a Renaissance masterpiece. Great news, except that it may have been stolen by her grandfather, who was once a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’ll need all the friends she can gather to sort out this caper. Fans are comparing it to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer, and Kirkus Reviews says Fitzgerald has created a fast-paced Da Vinci Code for middle-graders.
- Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells is another art-related whodunit that features Eddie, a kid with a photgraphic memory and a knack for sketching. With his parents down on their luck, he lands himself a job with the police department (not typical for sixth graders, but just the sort of thing they’d love to do if they could), helping to track down the Picasso Gang.
- Poached by Stuart Gibbs centers on a crime I bet you haven’t encountered in fiction before—koala theft. When an animal vanishes from the zoo, suspicion falls on Teddy Fitzroy. He was only hiding in the enclosure to avoid a bully, but now he has to solve the case to get himself off the hook.
- Swim That Rock by John Rocco. Jake’s dad is missing after a fishing boat accident, and loan sharks are circling the family business in this coming-of-age story set on the picturesque Rhode Island coast.
- The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage finds Miss Lana the inadvertent auction winner of a decaying inn occupied by a ghost. She calls in Desperado Detectives Mo and Dale to figure out who the haunt is and what it wants. What will the two kids get out of the deal? Hopefully some extra credit in their history class. Who knows more about the past than a ghost, after all? And who knows more about mixing mystery and comedy than Sheila Turnage?
- Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done by Stephan Pastis. Timmy returns to crack the biggest case of his generation: a school competition to find a stolen globe. It’s his ticket to bringing home a $500 prize, which is guaranteed to set him up for life. If he can remember to get his entry form in on time, that is.
Now I have a full selection of real mysteries to recommend, including art heists, murders, and tales of true detection. Who knows, perhaps we can actually start a Children’s Mystery Section at Island Books one day soon. Step aside, dragons, Harriet and Nancy aren’t alone anymore!