Some of the best writers working today write in the children’s and young adult literature categories. That has always been the case, I think. The children’s mysteries on my list for this column have either entertained generations or made a more recent impact in sales and media. They are some of the best books I’ve ever read.
Whether they influenced my childhood or made me smile during my latest hours of reading time, they gave me joy, wonder, and mental stimulation at some point. We all need those things no matter our age, especially right now.
Without further ado…
My Favorite Children’s Mysteries…
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
When Sam Westing dies and names most of the residents of Sunset Towers apartments as heirs, he sets them a task. They must solve a complicated set of clues with another heir as partner in order to win his fortune. They do not get to choose their partner. It turns out that Sam Westing knows exactly who needs whom in their life.
This book contains problematic elements (such as the stereotypical portrayal of the Hoo family and the characters’ ableist treatment of Chris Theodorakis, who is physically disabled), but is also somewhat forward-thinking in terms of race (shown through the skewering of Grace Windsor Wexler’s bigotry) and feminism.
It is one of the best children’s mysteries ever, maybe the best. TWG is smart, twisty, and has just enough danger to be exciting, but not too scary. I never tire of reading it. I sometimes even forget all the ins and outs of the very clever, twisty solution. If you’re a mystery lover and you haven’t read it, go do it now. Even if you’re not into children’s mysteries.
There is a movie adaptation from 1997 called Get a Clue. It’s a decent adaptation (even though they changed a lot) and fun to watch. I’m super excited for the HBO Max series that is on the way.
This is the first of many puzzle mysteries on this list. If you’ve read this column regularly, you know I love puzzles and code-cracking, especially if literary references are involved.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
Zoe Washington lives in Boston with her mom and dad, right next door to her best friend Trevor. Her dad is technically her stepdad, but he has raised her since she was 5. She doesn’t have a relationship with her biological dad, Marcus.
This is because Marcus is in prison for murder. Her mother does not want them to have contact and Zoe has always been fine with this. Zoe also loves to bake and is very talented at it. Her summer would be shaping up well, except for two things. She and Trevor are on the outs and a letter from Marcus suddenly arrives on Zoe’s 12th birthday. Zoe decides to answer without telling her mother and soon finds out that Marcus says he is innocent.
This is not exactly a mystery, but Zoe does some detecting to figure out if her biological dad really has an alibi witness for the time of the murder. Plus, it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. If the Mystery Writers of America count it, I will, too.
Zoe is an ambitious and determined character with her baking and even invents her own flavor of cupcake. Also, the book highlights the number of innocent people in jail, especially Black men, and the Innocence Project. This book warmed my heart and put a smile on my face. It also made me hungry.
An adaptation is forthcoming with Kerry Washington producing. That sounds like a great combination to me.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (author and illustrator)
One of the most famous books on this list, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler probably needs no introduction or description. It won the Newbery Medal in 1968 and several generations have read and loved it and shared it with their kids.
I first encountered it when one of my teachers read it to our class. During a recent reread with my kids, I was instantly hooked by Claudia and Jamie Kincaid and their repartee. Claudia is delightful and complex. She longs to be an individual, to be special and “different,” not realizing she already is. She sees the world a little differently and wants dreadfully for people to notice. One of my favorite scenes is where she tries to get Jamie to say the little Angel statue they’re researching looks like her. I’ve felt that before, longing to be special by being like something special.
Jamie is a precocious child, keenly aware of money, but still quite naive about the world. Also ignorant of proper grammar and speech to Claudia’s never-ending frustration. Some of Claudia’s nitpicking is just plain silly, though.
The two come up with a remarkable plan to run away from their home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Claudia thinks this will make her “different” and make her parents appreciate her. Jamie just wants an adventure. Claudia needs him for money and company.
Soon after they move in, a special exhibit arrives—a little statue that might have been sculpted by Michelangelo. Claudia falls in love with the statue and determines to find out for sure whether it is one of Michelangelo’s works.
One of the joys of this book is seeing the relationship between the two develop and deepen. They become a team as they learn more about Michelangelo and each other.
There are two adaptations—one from 1973 starring Ingrid Bergman (called The Hideaways) and the other from 1995 starring Lauren Bacall. (Talk about A-list talent.) I hope they both do justice to that relationship.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
This book is so fun. I think practically any reader could enjoy it, but if you like games and are a book nerd, you are all set. I was in heaven. I so wish this library was real.
Kyle Keeley loves games. His favorites are by Luigi Lemoncello, who just happens to be from Kyle’s hometown of Alexandriaville, Ohio. Mr. Lemoncello funded and designed a fabulous new library to replace the old one torn down twelve years ago. Twelve 12-year-olds who write the best essays about what most excites them about the new library get to attend a lock-in and see the new library before anyone else. Kyle is determined to be one of them and meet his hero.
Oh, my literary puzzle-loving heart. This book is jam-packed with literary references (mostly children’s books, but not all) and employs rebuses and several other kinds of codes to challenge the characters and readers. I read this book for the first time this week. I just finished a second reading, to my kids this time. It is that good. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
I just found out there is a Nickelodeon movie adaptation from 2017. Heading off to watch that now. 😉
Greystone Secrets #1: The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Anne Lambelet (illustrator)
This book was not what I expected, but I loved it. It is a page-turner, almost like a thriller for adults, but still appropriate for kids. It’s over 400 pages and I finished it in two days!
The narrators are adorable, smart, and fun. They are the Greystone kids, siblings Chess (short for Rochester), Emma, and Finn. Their father is dead and they adore their mother Kate, a graphic designer who raised them on her own.
But one day after school, everything is different. Three siblings with the same names and ages as the Greystones have been kidnapped. And Mom is not acting like Mom.
You are plunged into this story in the very first chapter and it barely lets up. It is exciting, intriguing (more code-cracking, but getting into the hard stuff with Vigenère ciphers), heartwarming, and kept me guessing more than many books written for adults.
Winterhouse by Ben Guterson and Chloe Bristol (illustrator)
This is the most magical book I’ve read in a while. Between the amazing hotel, the snowy winter setting, and the Christmas celebrations, I wanted to move right in.
Elizabeth Somers doesn’t know what to expect when she is invited to spend Christmas away from her aunt and uncle at the Winterhouse hotel, while her aunt and uncle vacation, thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Despite the unpleasantness of living with Aunt Purdy and Uncle Burlap, she would rather spend Christmas alone than brave this new place with strange people.
But Winterhouse is a place of magic and fun. Puzzles (both word and jigsaw) abound, there is a huge library, and the intriguing Falls family, proprietors of the hotel, are full of mysterious secrets. Elizabeth even makes a friend named Freddy, who helps her discover the secret behind the sinister couple who seem to be stalking Elizabeth at the hotel. Between enjoying the snow and food, especially Flurschen, a special candy made only at Winterhouse.
In addition to the magical environment, this book is also full of word games and ciphers. Elizabeth and Freddy initially bond over their mutual love of word ladders, one of which starts off every chapter, connecting both to the chapter title and its events. I never thought much about word ladders before I read this book, but I think I’m a fan now.
The cover and illustrations are gorgeous, definitely adding to the magic of the storyline. I first wanted to read this book because the beautiful cover caught my eye. I don’t usually care if a book has pictures (although I do buy beautiful picture books at times, even with my kids outgrowing them), but I wouldn’t want this book to be without them.
The writing is vivid with some unique turns of phrase. The beauty and the menace leap off the page. As soon as I finished the first one, I bought the next one to read.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (author and illustrator)
WARNING: I don’t usually include spoilers, but there are some mild ones in this entry. I needed them to make a point and the book has been out for decades. You have been warned.
We don’t see books like Harriet the Spy anymore. In some ways that’s good. Talk about fat phobia. Every unpleasant person in this book is described as fat and it’s not meant as a compliment.
But people seem to have forgotten that the world of children can be ruthless and unforgiving. That children themselves can be ruthless and unforgiving. And that back when parents were a little less involved, kids learned to work things out. Obviously, it’s good for parents to be involved, but I regret that kids don’t have their own world to learn to navigate as much anymore.
This is a much darker story than I remembered from reading it as a child. Harriet M. Welsch wants to be a writer. Her nanny Ole Golly told her she needs to observe people and write down everything. Harriet takes this to a bit of an extreme by developing a regular “spy route” where she watches people in her neighborhood and writes down her thoughts about them.
She also does that with her friends and classmates at school. They find her notebook. And read it. And they are not happy. Harriet suffers the consequences of her actions, but she is one against many, who, by the way, haven’t paid for reading her private notebook. Except in embarrassment maybe.
Harriet rallies and fights back. She learns what she did wrong, apologizes, and fixes it. That’s why I love her. I think that’s why people still love her. She stands up for herself and learns to admit when she’s wrong and change.
Harriet is a very compelling book. The writing is smart and nuanced and the characters very realistic. Fitzhugh isn’t trying to make these kids lovable or even likable. She wanted to show what life could be like for all kids, but especially kids who are different. Especially kids whose parents are indifferent or caught up in their own lives. This is one of those books where the sheer act of reading it is satisfying. It’s not a mystery, but I think it works to call it a spy novel for kids. It’s also more than that, though.
I was surprised to find out that Harriet the Spy is the first book in a series. There are 4 books, including Harriet. The second, The Long Secret, is a mystery. This is a very strange book that couldn’t be more different than its predecessor. It’s worth a read and could probably fill a whole column on its own. The story is told from Harriet’s classmate Beth Ellen’s point of view. The third is about her best friend Sport. And the fourth is another mystery. There are also several companion books.
If you want even more Harriet, there is a new Harriet the Spy cartoon series on AppleTV+. I’m very excited to try it. The Michelle Trachtenberg movie from 1996 is cute, maybe a little too cute at times. I do think it is a better adaptation than it is given credit for. The film stayed true to Harriet’s rebel spirit and the dark parts of her conflict with her friends and classmates.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Like Greystone, this book was very different than I expected. It has an apocalyptic, 1984 aspect to it. The characters are complex and heartbreaking. I expected them to stay at Mr. Benedict’s house and be detectives. I didn’t realize there is an astounding worldwide threat (the “Emergency”) or that the kids would be undercover alone on such a dangerous mission.
Reynard “Reynie” Muldoon has spent his entire life at the Stonetown Orphanage, without close connections, except his teacher Miss Perumal. One day she tells him about a notice in the paper looking for gifted children to take a test to be eligible for “special opportunities.” She wants him to take it and Reynie agrees.
The tests are weird and difficult, but Reynie makes it through, along with three other special kids—George “Sticky” Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire. Together, they meet the mysterious Nicholas Benedict, along with his colleagues Number Two, Rhonda Kazembe, and Milligan. They discover that the “Emergency” that has all the adults worried is more serious than any of them realize and it’s up to them to stop it.
Besides the interesting plot and excellent writing, the strength of this book is the team of four children. Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance are tough, intelligent, resourceful, and able to trust each other and become a team, despite all of the abandonment and solitude in their lives up to this point. They work through their trauma to become this team, so they can hopefully save the world. In the process, they save themselves, which sounds very cliché, but Stewart renders it in a way that most definitely is not.
I liked the first season of the TV show on Disney+. Everyone was well cast, despite the fact that Kristen Schaal is older than Number Two is in the book and I pictured Mr. Benedict as an older man. Now that I’ve seen Tony Hale play him, I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
This is a wonderful, intricate puzzle mystery bound up with the history of the house and its previous occupants. The house itself is a character and part of the mystery. Many of the clues are hidden in and around it, some actually built into it. I loved the descriptions of the beautiful stained glass.
Twelve-year-old Milo is excited for winter break to begin. During the holiday, there are usually no guests at the old smuggler’s inn in which he and his parents live and work called Greenglass House. But on the first night, the arrival bell begins to ring and doesn’t stop until five guests are ensconced in Milo’s living room telling stories, all of which end up connecting to the history of his home.
Milo doesn’t appreciate this intrusion into his family holiday. He does end up befriending Meddy, the daughter of the cook, and they work together to solve the mystery when guests’ possessions disappear, which causes trouble for Milo’s parents.
I appreciated that Milo is Chinese-American and the adoptive child of white parents (I am white and have a son adopted from China). Both the joys and difficulties of this situation were portrayed from Milo’s point of view. He loves his parents very much but still struggles with identity, belonging, and curiosity about his past. He is solving the mystery of himself as much as the one in the narrative.
As a person who is neurodivergent, I appreciated the portrayal of Milo and his parents coping with that as well. It is difficult for them all, but he’s not stigmatized or criticized for it. He seems to have sensory sensitivities and anxiety, two conditions that really don’t mix with encountering strangers in your space all the time, especially when you weren’t expecting them. This is handled with sensitivity and realism. Milo isn’t put under a burden to change. He and his parents work to accommodate each other in the conditions of their lives.
Greenglass House has been optioned by Paramount, but no adaptation has appeared as yet.
While we’re waiting, let me know—what are your favorite children’s mysteries?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.