As an adult reader I really like reading mysteries, but this has never been an easy genre for me to sell to my grade-school-library patrons. A quick off-the-cuff book talk at the shelves is really my bread and butter for getting books into kids’ hands, yet I’ve always struggled to do this with mysteries. It seems like kids should be attracted to mysteries—with suspense and puzzles, what’s not to like? But the appeal never quite translates. An eighth-grade boy I’ve known for years even said, “Ugh, mystery,” as I told him about a book he was considering checking out. Clearly something needed to be done: what would it take to get more kids excited about mysteries?
Because of this eighth grader, I started at the top. I’ve found that at least two-thirds of the battle in convincing my middle-school students to check things out is just getting the books in their hands and forcing them to take a couple of minutes to look at what’s in front of them. Otherwise, they have a tendency to do the middle-school look-for-books: wander aimlessly, pick up a book that they truly have no intention of checking out, gaze out the window while holding the book listlessly, lean against the bookshelves looking pensive, and then put the book back on the shelf. This is when they lope back to me to explain that they just can’t find a thing to read.
Although I love prepping sets of booktalks at several points throughout the year, planned booktalks are time-consuming and the interest they generate only lasts a few weeks. I wanted to find some other strategies to help create a sense of excitement about mysteries. I’d read online about mystery bags: the librarian (and hopefully some helpers because boy, is this time intensive) puts a book in a brown paper bag, tapes the book’s bar code on the outside of the bag, and tapes the bag shut. Librarians can do this with any kind of book as a way to provide intrigue and get older students interested in checking them out.
“The suspense is too much!” one fourth grader told me.
In this case, I went with mysteries inside the mystery bags—as I told the kids, the bags were “mystery mysteries.” There was a lot of whispering, and some questions, as the kids came in the library. I explained that the bags all contained mysteries (with the predictable groan from my mystery hater) but that students would not know what book they were getting until after they had checked it out. That drew “aahs” of understanding and even one “That’s dope.” And then I sunk the final hook—they were all eligible to check out a mystery bag even if they had already met the checkout limit or had overdue books. (There are no fines charged in our library but kids can’t check out new books until they bring in their overdue books to renew.)
“So who would like a Mystery Mystery?” I asked.
Seventeen of them, as it turned out. Add that to the five kids who checked out something from the shelves and that put us about 15 or 16 checkouts over normal. Even my mystery-averse boy checked one out after pinching and squeezing the bags to see which book felt like it might be short or maybe even a paperback. I didn’t let them open the bags right away, partly to build suspense but also to ensure I didn’t lose them during my lesson. When they finally did open the bags at the end of class, I was pleased with how much conversation the books engendered. “Hey, I’ve seen this before,” one girl said of Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery (2008) before she started to read. Another group had a long conversation about Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of This Book is Secret (2007). Yet another boy was excited to end up with Public Enemy Number Two by Anthony Horowitz (1991), which was definitely the book I would have chosen for him. Only one kid returned his book without giving it a chance.
The mystery mysteries were so much fun with eighth graders that I decided to try it at lower grade levels. The excitement was even higher when the younger kids tried it out. “The suspense is too much!” one fourth grader told me as he waved his mystery bag at me. When they came back the next week they were talking books, asking which one each student had read, and wanting more mystery mysteries.
Later this month, I’ll write about how we made the transition from reading mysteries . . . to writing mysteries!