Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mysteries for Kids & the Young at Heart

Do you remember the first time you realized that books contained stories that could transport you to different times and places? I think I was about seven. Of course I'd been read to before that critical moment, but I don't think I actually understood until then that there were stories on those pages that I could learn to read by myself. (I think the problem was that a lot of the people who read to me were known to veer off the printed words in a book and add their own. Not that I didn't enjoy their elaborations, but it took me awhile to connect the printed words to the story I was used to hearing). Needless to say, after I learned to read, I didn't want anyone reading aloud to me anymore.

There are a handful of books from my childhood that will always have a special place in my heart. They are the books I read over and over: Across Five Aprils, Where the Red Fern Grows, Up A Road Slowly, the Irish Red books, My Antonia, and A White Bird Flying.

Recently my co-author and I have been discussing the possibility of writing a middle-school or young adult (YA) mystery. My favorite mysteries at that age were the Trixie Belden series, but I didn't have a clue what kinds of books were popular now – besides the Harry Potter books. As a first step in the process, this past week I've read a number of popular YA mysteries in order to understand the current market. I was surprised at what I found. Then I was surprised that I was surprised.

The themes in the YA books were very much adult themes – divorce, violence, and child abuse –all viewed through the eyes of the teen or pre-teen protagonist. Maybe I've just forgotten or maybe the reading material for twelve-year-olds has changed. Certainly today's typical twelve-year-old is more sophisticated in some ways than I was at that age. Television and movies have seen to that transformation. And I suppose that in order to interest today's teen or pre-teen reader, books will have to follow suit.

The YA books I read this past week included hardbacks and mass market paperbacks. The only things I found they had in common were the mystery element, a young hero or heroine, and a generally happy ending.

The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein
The Lost Boy by Linda Newbery
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Snatched (Bloodwater Mysteries) by Pete Hautman and Mary Logue
Mystery Isle by Judith St. George

Of the books listed above – all worthwhile reading, I found two were the best sources of information for my purposes: Lost Boy and Snatched.

Lost Boy is a beautiful, thoughtful book that both teens and adults will love. It will surely be reprinted for decades. Set in modern day rural Britain, a young boy, Matt Lanchester, and his family move to a new town and Matt tries to fit in. He learns to choose his friends wisely and rely on his own good sense. Matt's chance encounter with the spirit of a dead boy, a mysterious old man, and charming legends of lost boys fuel a wonderful tale.

Snatched is a fun mystery – a quick read that follows a traditional whodunit format with a lot of humor mixed in for good measure. Roni Delicata , an 11-grade reporter for the school newspaper, investigates the assault of a fellow student. When that student goes missing, the young reporter and Brian Bain, her unlikely sidekick (a freshman science geek) join forces. Since they are both suspended from school for breaking the rules, they decide to use their unexpected free time to break a few more in their search for answers about the missing student.

Lost Boy is a book I will aspire to write someday. Snatched is something I could achieve now.

Do you have some recommendations for me? What else in the YA category should I be reading?


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