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Though children’s mystery novels have been popular throughout the lifetime of virtually everyone reading this essay, the origin of children reading mysteries is quite a bit older. The Sherlock Holmes stories from the mid-1800s, for example, were popular with both young readers and adults. Still, the primary market for the Sherlock Holmes stories was intended to be adults. The actual children’s mystery series came along quite a bit later, beginning with The Mansion of Mystery by Chester K. Steele.
Chester K. Steele wasn’t the author’s real name. That was Edward Stratemeyer, the same man who began a syndicate that pumped out such well known children’s mystery series as Nancy Drew (launching in 1930, right around the time of Stratemeyer’s death by pneumonia) and The Hardy Boys (launching even earlier in 1927). Interestingly, these series were not well thought of by educators and librarians, many of whom were quite vocal about how damaging the books could be to young readers. But once introduced to mysteries, children wanted more and publishing has been working hard to give them more ever since.
Begin with An Idea
A good idea for a mystery can grow from many different seeds. You might begin by pondering your sleuth and thinking of a unique character to fill the role: What if my sleuth is a robot? Or a penguin? Or a vampire? Or you might think of a unique setting where young characters might encounter a mystery: a beehive, a summer camp in space, a circus. Or you might come up with a really unique problem to solve: a missing bus, a stolen sloth, or a mummy who walked out of a museum.
Any of these might be a seed that grows into a great mystery, but much of that growth needs to happen in your head before you ever start writing. In other words, to end up with a really strong story, you really need to plan a mystery before you start writing it. This can feel uncomfortable or constraining for writers who’ve always counted on simply sitting down and pumping out a story as it comes to mind.
If you don’t think through both your unique idea and the solution to your unique problem, often the resulting mystery is (1) a solution that doesn’t flow logically from the clues, (2) a solution that flows too logically, making it not a puzzle at all since everyone knew who the villain was well before your “detective,” or (3) a solution that falls back on old clichés (a misunderstanding, a wayward pet, or the oft present thieving raccoon) because that’s all that comes to mind by the time you reach the big reveal. By thinking it through ahead of time, you stay in charge of the solution and can make the story more compelling and more challenging.
Different Readers/Different Needs
One thing to keep in mind when planning a mystery is the needs of your audience, especially the relationship between complexity and age. For example, a young adult mystery will be very different than a beginning reader mystery. Young adult mysteries regularly dig deeper into the history, lives, and subplot problems of the characters and are more comfortable with putting the main character in serious danger or involving an actual murder. Mysteries for the youngest readers are usually more focused on the puzzle aspect: a child sees or hears something unexpected and investigates to find out what caused it. Mysteries for the youngest reader are often these kind of cause-and-effect puzzles: the characters discovers something puzzling and looks for an answer, each step of looking reveals something that sends the character in a new direction, and eventually the character arrives at a logical but surprising (and often funny) solution. These very young reader mysteries challenge the reader’s thinking skills but virtually never involve moral questions or danger. So a mystery for a very young reader might involve the family acting strangely and maybe some odd noises leading to a solution where the family was preparing a surprise for the main character.
Mysteries for the age group that are fluent readers but not teens are usually more what we think of as traditional children’s mysteries, the Nancy Drew sort. These mysteries will focus mostly on the mystery plot and solving the problem, but the stories will often have a subplot that is more personal to the main character. A mystery sleuth might be trying to solve the mystery of whether their new stepfather is an alien, but the story will also explore the struggles of family change.
The younger the reader, the more the pacing for a mystery must be fast. But even with teen mysteries, you need to catch reader interest early and keep it throughout the telling. The solution to a mystery, no matter what the intended readership, should be unexpected and unusual. Oh, and don’t give away the ending in your title (you’d be amazed by how many new writers do that).
You Solved It!
Though surprising, the solution to the mystery must be logical from the clues given, but elusive so that it requires some work on the part of the reader to figure it out ahead of the main character. One way to do this is to give the reader plenty of reason to think the solution may be one thing (the stepfather is actually in witness protection) but then hit them with an unexpected solution that also works with the clues (such as the stepfather actually being an alien).
Mysteries can be nearly as challenging to plot as they are to solve, but readers love the journey. Tracking down recent mysteries will help you see the twists and turns publishers are taking today. You’ll still find series books and individual mysteries for each age group. So if you’re feeling mysterious, do some reading and try your hand at one. This might be exactly the genre for you.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.