Because I understand that deep down inside we all want our children to grow into mastermind secret agents, I decided to create a “growing a detective” reading list: mystery stories for every age and reading level.
The Adventures of Underwater Dog – Jan Wahl
Underwater Dog is a noble adventurer dog who never fails to catch the criminal, solve the crime, and save the day. This book is a great introduction to the undercover spy/policeman idea. The illustrations are cute and inviting. Although this book is pretty unknown, I believe it is a true hidden gem. It was one of my very favorites when I was first learning to read.
Grandpa’s Teeth – Rob Clement
I must admit that I’ve never read this book. I included it because it received wildly popular reviews on the internet. It is a classic introduction to mystery, with a quirky sense of humor. What better way to get your kids excited about detectives than to send them in search of grandpa’s lost dentures.
Piggins – Jane Yolens
Perfect detective introduction story with all the elements of a good mystery novel mixed with the simple illustrations and anthropomorphous animals of children’s literature.
I Spy Mystery, a book of picture riddles – Jean Marzollo
Before kids are old enough to read, they can be practicing their problem solving skills with I Spy riddle books. I have sweet memories of snuggling up with one of my honorary grandma’s on a rainy day, desperately searching through “I Spy” books together. It is a lovely experience I hope every child and parent can share.
Detective Blue – Steve Metzger
Little boy blue is all grown up and must solve a mystery with the help of all his nursery rhyme friends. A great link between the children’s books of childhood and the mystery books of the next stage.
Alphabet Mystery – Audrey Wood
Lower case X is missing and so all the letters must help to find him. Mixing the familiarity of alphabet books with the exciting genre of mystery makes for an exciting twist on an old classic.
Nate the Great – Marjorie W. Sharmat
This (very possibly) may have been the place where my detective obsession began. There is a creepily fantastic vibe to these books. Although the wording is simple and the stories appropriate for even the youngest of early readers – the characters have rich and complex personalities. To this day, I am still not sure I fully understand the quirky Rosamond. The humor is so sophisticated, making them a fun family read aloud that everyone can enjoy. These books possess a subtlety you rarely encounter in beginning readers. I admit, I still find myself sneaking into the children’s section to read a Nate the Great every once in a while.
Young Cam Jansen – Da v id A. Adler
Cam Jansen was one of my original childhood heroes. You will hear more about her in the following section on “elementary” books. I was absolutely thrilled when the author decided to take the same quick-thinking and intelligent young girl and bring her down to a beginner reading level. You can’t go wrong with Cam Jansen!
The Private Eyes Club – Crosby Bonsall
This series is cute, inspiring, and pretty funny. Four intelligent friends with a clubhouse go around town solving mysteries and helping out. I love the themes of strong friendships and kids doing great things. I should mention that the series has no official name. Just look for cutely illustrated books by Bill Consby in your local libary – you’ll find em.
Cam Jansen – David A. Adler
Cam Jansen was one of my earliest role models. She is an ordinary kid with an extraordinary photographic memory. She can actually “take pictures” with her brain. She uses her ability to solve real crimes. These stories are fun and exciting – each adventure is unique. Cam Jansen is one of the earliest examples of a strong female heroine that every young problem solver should be introduced to.
A to Z Mysteries – Ronald Roy
I loved this series as a kid. Looking back I am unimpressed by a what seems to be a lazy attempt at character creation. The three main kids are pretty simple and almost stereotypical. But hey – I never minded as an eight year old! While this series does not fall under the category of quality literature, the stories are each unique and have smart conclusions.
Encyclopedia Brown – Donald J. Sobol
These were the first mysteries I ever read where I got to be the detective. Using an incredible memory and fascinating facts, Encylopedia Brown invites you to solve his mysteries before giving you the answer.
The Boxcar Children – Gertrude Chandler Warner
Almost every one of my sisters went through a box car children stage. When I say stage I mean checking out multiple boxcar children mysteries from the library every single week for months on end. The mysteries are simpler than most, and after a while they are a bit predictable (but hey, it took me at least four months to get over them). The first book in the series borders classic literature status. The rest are not quite the same quality, but they do make for wholesome entertainment for a month or two.
Nancy Drew – Carolyn Keene
In middle school, my idea of perfection was snuggling on my bunk bed with a a cookie, a glass of milk, and a Nancy Drew book. Looking back I see Nancy Drew as predictable and slightly annoying (mostly because almost every single book ends with the father or the boyfriend saving the day just in time ). Yet for some reason I LOVED them as twelve year old. I think the fun lies in the different kinds of mysteries and the interesting places Nancy visits. It seems like Nancy and her friends are almost always on some type of vacation. I loved entering her world of 50’s convertibles, country clubs, and scary adventures with happy endings. Oh and lets not forget the food – she is always eating something delicious! Make sure to have an exploratory mood and good snack handy if you want to enjoy these books to their fullest.
(Side Note: The first eight are pretty great. Subsequent books are hit and miss as far as quality goes. Generally it seems like they grew worse and worse with time. Please don’t even try the modern spin called “Nancy Drew Case Files”.)
Hardy Boys – Franklin W. Dixon
Simply put, this is Nancy Drew for boys. I used to enjoy reading them to my younger brother. After a while I got tired of the predictability (Bad guy captures good guy. Bad guy laughs evil laugh and tells good guy his plan. Good guys start punching and kicking and end up winning the fight. Yaay.) But hey – just as Nancy Drew was unreasonably entertaining for me, these books are (still don’t understand it) favorites amongst adventurous boys everywhere.
Roman Mysteries – Caroline Lawrence
I introduced these books to my younger siblings when we were studying Roman history together. I love that these books immerse you in another culture and time period. The setting is intriguing and extremely historically accurate. The richness of the setting testifies that the author really did her homework. Although our school unit on Rome was finished long ago, my siblings cannot stop reading these mysteries. The characters are interesting and multi-facited and a little deeper than in most children’s series
Chasing Vermeer – Blue Balliet
I read this book when I was in middle school and loved it. I then gave it to my younger siblings in elementary school and they devoured it just as fast as I did. Not only is it exciting, each story (there are three) revolves around an art form or famous artist. I learned a ton about art, sculpture, architecture, Vermeer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The books got me excited about art in a way I had never felt before, causing me to research the topics covered once I finished reading. Books that have great literary value and get kids to think and explore art? Win win!
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Where do I begin? Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular characters in all of literature. His stories and quotes have become a part of English and American culture – and for good reason. This book is a collection of 12 accessible short stories. They are a great sampling of his work, with a heavy dose of everything that makes Sherlock Holmes so popular: intriguing ideas, unique characters, unbelievable logic, and witty dialog. My theory is that as soon as a child can read an advanced YA novel with no problem, they should immediately be introduced to the joy that is Sherlock Holmes.
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although I have always been partial to Sherlock Holmes in short stories, Doyle also wrote four novels starring the iconic detective. Of all the novels, Hound of the Baskerville’s is probably the best place to start. Many critics agree that it portrays Sherlock Holmes at his finest.
Agatha Christie Novels
Agatha Christie novels have are about as charming and quaint as murder mysteries get. They tend to involve a wide cast of disparate characters, which can be confusing, but once you get the hang of it, makes things fun. Not only does she include a varied array of characters, through the detective skills of her famous Hercules Poirot, she explores each ones psychology in depth. It is a fascinating look into human nature for the bookish detective with a slightly philosophical bent.
Father Brown – G. K. Chesterton
The bumbly priest, Father Brown, is a different sort of addition to the world of detective short stories. You might say he is the perfect mix of Sherlock Holmes and T.V.’s Colombo (if such a mix is even possible). His stories are less dramatic then your average whodunit. Warning: there are occasional violent descriptions of wounds or deaths that may disturb the fainter of heart. Otherwise they are clean and appropriate for children.
The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin
This is the classic of classic in children’s mysteries. It also happens to be one of my all-time favorite. This book presents a unique cast of characters that are quirky, well developed, and unforgettable. Although the plot is complicated (and sophisticated) for a children’s book, it is certainly accessible to later elementary school and up. Don’t worry if a student remains slightly puzzled after the first reading. I’ve read it three times and am pretty sure I still don’t fully get it. Start young and keep reading and rereading it for the rest of your life.
And there you have it! A perfect way to start training your lil tyke to be the world’s next greatest problem solver! What are your very favorite detecive and mystery stories? I am ALWAYS looking for more.