In my previous post, “The Names of These Books Are Secret,” I wrote about how I got the kids in my grade-school library excited about reading mystery novels using “mystery mysteries.”
Although feeling a bit trepidatious I decided to also try out mystery writing with my middle-grade students. Fifth and sixth graders started by defining a multitude of mystery words. Most were fairly straightforward: clue, detective, and so on. Others gave them pause (alibi, sleuth) while still others were complete unknowns—only one child could correctly identify a red herring. Then we did some mystery reading with Brett Hale’s Chet Gecko series (From Russia with Lunch, etc.). After trying it two ways, I think it worked better when I read aloud from one of the books rather than having them reading them in small groups. There’s a fair amount of nuance to the mysteries that escaped some of the kids, even when I was putting my own inflection on it, and I’m sure even more was lost when they were doing the reading.
I ended up checking out far more books in the series to students when I started out with all of us reading together. As we read, students looked out for our mystery vocabulary words. (“Hey! I think that was a clue!”) When I met with them the following week, I let them partner up if they wanted to and passed out a mystery-planning casebook. Pairs of students spent about ten minutes talking before settling down individually to plan out the crime, suspects, clues, and so on. Then they came back together and began writing.
In truth, I was not really sure this would work out—asking kids to write in a style they’ve had little exposure to potentially sets them up for failure, and is also somewhat unfair. But they had been so jazzed the week before about finding the mystery attributes, and were so stoked when I suggested they write their own mysteries, that I figured we’d try it. I did sweeten the pot, telling them that when they finished their stories, I would take their names off of them and have students in another class read, rate, and choose their favorite mystery.
“I love mysteries,” one second-grader told me.
“I have a detective suit at home.”
For their stories, students had two options for characters: they could either use characters from books and TV or they could use teachers from our school. This, of course, had students asking if they could use other students in their stories. My decision? They could use other students as witnesses but not as suspects or victims. Rule number two was no violent crimes. The student stories far exceeded my expectations. My favorite batch of characters ended up being NBA players involved in a mystery about Dell Curry’s championship ring being stolen from Stephen. And three separate stories focused on a missing math book. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
David Biedrzycki’s Ace Lacewing: Bug Detective (2005) ended up being my story of choice for primary readers. I tried starting with Mini Grey’s Hermelin the Detective Mouse (2014) but the story wasn’t quite linear enough to work our way through. Hermelin’s casebook, however, provided my inspiration for our activity. I used the most typewriter-y font I could find and created “casebooks” for each of my primary-aged detectives, complete with a magnifying glass on the front and notebook paper for writing down the crime, clues, suspects, and finally the solution. Mysteries were definitely a much easier sell at this age. “I love mysteries,” one second-grader told me. “I have a detective suit at home.”
Instead of giving them a list of vocabulary words, I told them a story. “At exactly 1:32 today,” I said, “paintbrushes were stolen from the art room. There were only two clues.” At this point, we stopped and discussed what a clue is. “Number one: the paintbrushes were stolen from a very small space where a child might fit. Number two: there were some long dark hairs left at the scene of the crime. Fortunately for me, because I have long dark hair, I have an alibi.” The concept of an alibi often led to be our longest discussions. In one class, a girl had left the room because she’d dropped her lunch bag in the wrong place, and since she had long dark hair, there was a huge discussion about whether or not she’d have had time to get downstairs to the art room. (She had not.) Then they put on their imaginary detective hats, grabbed their casebooks, and got to work solving the mystery of Ace Lacewing: Bug Detective. One of my charmers started calling me “Detective Rowe,” which made them all giggle, so after that I had each student identify themselves with the word “Detective” on their casebook.
Mysteries are challenging. They can require so much background knowledge or explanation of vocabulary. I don’t like to give away too much about the books during readers’ advisory, which can make it tricky to come up with something quick to entice a reader. Like so many other things we do I found that the more game-like the activity, the more engaging it was—which makes sense. I like that element of solving a puzzle or playing a game inherent in mysteries, and so do the kids. Suspense is part of the fun, so making checking out mysteries suspenseful worked for my library. Ultimately focusing on two mystery attributes, the puzzle and the suspense, worked for me in increasing an interest in mysteries among my students. So for now? Case closed.