This is a good time to be a child interested in mysteries. Malice Domestic, the organization of traditional mystery lovers, has just announced their Agatha Awards, including the award for Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery.
There were five nominees this year, and I want to give you a brief taste of each. I have read three of the five so far, including the Agatha winner, and I think that each of these books could, should and would get a child excited about mysteries.
Let's start with this year's winner: Chris Grabenstein's "The Hanging Hill." Intended for readers around the 5th-6th grade level (the hero is an eleven-year-old boy), "The Hanging Hill" has supernatural elements as well as traditional mystery sleuthing. Eleven-year-old Zack Jennings, who can see ghosts, arrives at the Hanging Hill Playhouse with his stepmother and dog. His mother has written a play which will be produced at the theater. But the presence of a number of ominous and malevolent ghosts suggests that there's something very wrong with the events going on at the playhouse. The theater director appears to be an evil necromancer - and he appears to be getting ready for a different kind of production that could imperil Zack and the other kids in the play. The supernatural elements are integral to the book - but so are the clues that help Zack determine what's really going on, and what he can do about it. There's a lot of humor - some of it clearly aimed at the intended age group - and it's an excellent story.
For younger children, about 3rd-grade level, I'd recommend another nominee, "The Case of the Poisoned Pig," by Lewis B. Montgomery. The book is the second in a series featuring two school kids, Milo and Jazz, who are trying to learn to be detectives. In this one, they face the problem of Jazz's new pet piglet: somebody appears to be poisoning the pig. Who would do such a thing? With help from their pen-pal instructor, private eye Dash Marlowe, the two young detectives track down the poisoner. The story is studded with clues about what's really happening, and young readers will enjoy puzzling over the clues, reading the messages from Dash Marlowe and getting advice on some of the things detectives look for when solving crimes. It's a good, funny introduction to mysteries for younger readers.
I think that a more mature teen-aged audience will love the book which I admit turned out to be my own favorite among the award nominees that I've read: Valerie O. Patterson's "The Other Side of Blue." The heroine is a 15-year-old girl, named Cyan, the name of a shade of blue. Cyan returns to the island of Curacao one year after the death of her father, who apparently drowned in a boating accident. Cyan isn't so sure it was an accident. She suspects that her mother may have been at least partly responsible. What about the shattered champagne glasses found on board the boat after the accident? As a gulf grows between daughter and mother, Cyan finds she must also play hostess to a younger girl who may soon become her stepsister. She must also deal with some of the boys who live on the island. Part coming-of-age novel, part classic mystery, the book is marvelous, as Cyan struggles to come to terms with her father's death - and with her mother and stepsister-to-be as well. She will be surprised by what she learns, as she explores the overall symbolism within the color blue.
The other two Agatha nominees were books I haven't had a chance to read yet. John C. Ford's "The Morgue and Me" is described by the author as a "modern take on the classic detective genre." School Library Journal pegs it for 7th-grade and up, with a teen-aged boy named Christopher as the hero. He was looking for a summer job after graduating high school - and wound up with a job at the morgue - where he discovers a murder cover-up. Bribery and kidnappings are involved as well, as Christopher and his reporter friend Tina work to solve the mystery, which - according to the author's blurb - involves plenty of plot twists and red herrings.
The last Agatha nominee is "The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline ," by Nancy Springer, and it's the latest adventure involving Enola Holmes, the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. Back in January, I recommended this series as an excellent way to introduce fourth-to-eighth graders to traditional mysteries. The new book apparently involves the kidnapping of her landlady. Enola is led to Florence Nightingale - but what could the latter have to do with a spy network as well as a kidnapping? I'm looking forward to this one too.
There you have it. Five nominees (and one winner). Five more opportunities to introduce young readers to the joys of traditional mysteries.