As a child you could often find me slinking around my neighborhood with a pencil and notebook. I would collect clues and ascribe meaning to them. Sometimes I would even leave clues for myself to find--a single glove, perhaps, or a crumpled up note.
Although I was influenced by Harriet M. Welsch and the composition notebook she filled in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, the biggest inspiration for my detective work was Nancy Drew. Nancy got into far more exciting scrapes than I could ever have hoped to encounter, but remained unflappable. She was independent, but was always able to return to her safe and warm home. I raced through the blue and yellow covered classics. My favorite was The Hidden Staircase, which layered a haunted house onto the mystery, an enticing blurring of genres.
Some of my other favorite mysteries for middle grade readers include:
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: When I decided to try to write the middle grade novel that would evolve into The Water Castle, this was the first novel I chose to revisit. What I remembered most of it was the way that Claudia and her brother, Jamie, make a life for themselves hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, I had forgotten all about the mystery of the Michelangelo sculpture! The mystery picks up when Claudia and Jamie venture to her house to find out once and for all the mysterious origins of the statue.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin: The story begins with the death of Samuel Westing. Sixteen heirs, who previously didn’t know they were related to Mr. Westing, are called to hear the reading of his will, which is actually a murder-mystery puzzle. Whoever solves his murder will inherit his fortune. Reading it as an adult you realize what an odd middle grade novel it is. There is only one child character in the book: Turtle Wexler, and yet this book stands the test of time. I think it’s the way that Raskin involves the reader in the mystery, and keeps them guessing right up to the surprise ending.
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne: Moxie’s beloved grandfather may have had a more exciting past than she realized: he used to hide things for a Whitey Bulger-esque mobster. One of his lackeys shows up trying to shake down Moxie for information on where her grandfather hid the gang’s biggest heist: the stolen artwork from the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum. The catch? Moxie’s grandfather suffers from dementia, and even he might not know where the treasure lies. Teaming up with her GPS-loving friend Ollie, Moxie races to find the art before the gangsters do in order to save her grandfather’s good name. I probably would have enjoyed this book for the Gardner Museum connection alone, but it was Moxie who truly won me over.
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead: What I love about Stead’s novels, including the Newbery winning When You Reach Me, is that she carries you along on a lively story, only to offer a gorgeous twist at the end. In Liar & Spy, Georges must leaves his beloved apartment for a smaller place, where he meets Safer, the leader of a “spy club.” Together they work to uncover the dark mystery of one of the building’s other tenants. It is the secrets that Safer is keeping from Georges--and the secret that Georges is keeping from himself--that lend this novel devastating poignancy.