Research shows convincingly (at least to me) that early and frequent reading has a lot of benefits. Children who read a lot tend to be able to think more critically, do better academically, and develop stronger language skills, among other things. And that’s not to mention the joy of getting lost in a story. We’ve known this for some time, and schools have put in place plenty of programs to support reading.
The thing is, though, that opportunity to read isn’t all that’s involved in helping a child become a lifelong reader. It’s also a matter of finding reading material children enjoy. That can be tricky, since we all have different tastes. But there’s no doubt that mystery stories aimed at young people have played a major role in creating generations of readers.
For example, the first of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ novels – Five on a Treasure Island – was first published in 1942. Millions of children grew up reading Blyton’s stories, and it’s not hard to see why. They feature young people as protagonists in interesting mysteries. And the stories are accessible without being overly condescending. Little wonder so many people can trace their love of reading directly to Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and of course, Timmy the dog.
A similar thing might be said of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. Both of these series were conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, and collectively written under the respective pseudonyms Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon. If you grew up reading these series and/or watching the TV adaptations, you know how appealing they can be. What’s interesting, too, is that these particular series have been updated over the decades as times and social culture have changed. While the original Nancy Drew series ended in 2003 (after a run that began in 1930!), two spinoff series were written: Nancy Drew: Girl Detective (2004-2012) and The Nancy Drew Diaries (since 2013). It’s that appealing a series. Stratemeyer was also the creator of the Bobbsey Twins series, among others.
There’ve also been many more recent mystery series written for children. For instance, David A. Adler’s Cam Jansen series features Jennifer ‘Cam’ Jansen, a Grade Five student with a photographic memory and a skill at solving mysteries. Since 1980 (there are now 35 Cam Jansen books in print), young people have been following Cam’s adventures. Adler also wrote a series featuring a younger Cam Jansen; it’s also popular and still in print.
Beginning in 1972, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat wrote a series of books featuring Nate the Great, a young boy who uses his detective skills to help his friends solve mysteries. Many of the books in the series are intended for beginning readers; but, starting in 1999, Sharmat also wrote several Nate the Great chapter books, intended for slightly more advanced readers. Like the Cam Jansen series, this series is still in print and remains popular, although its author sadly passed away in 2019.
There are also many standalone mystery books for younger readers. One of them is James Dean (yes, that’s the author’s name) and Kimberly Dean’s Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. If you’re familiar with the Pete the Cat character, then you’ll know that these authors have created a number of Pete the Cat books. But this particular one features a mystery for readers to try to solve.
Henry G. Allard wrote a series of three books featuring Miss Nelson, a Grade One teacher with a mischievous class of students. The first one, Miss Nelson is Missing!, presents the students with a mystery when their teacher disappears and is replaced by the mean and terrible Miss Viola Swamp. Young readers are invited to follow along as Miss Nelson’s students try to work out what has happened to their teacher.
There are lots of other mystery books and series for young people, from simple beginning reader books (e.g., Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot?) to YA mystery series such as Jane Casey’s Jess Tennant series. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are a great many, and that they’re popular. Mysteries hold people’s interest. Mysteries also invite children to use their natural curiosity.
But those aren’t the only advantages to young people reading mysteries. They learn important hypothesis-testing and prediction skills. They also learn how to make sense of what they see, hear, etc. And all of those skills will serve them all their lives. What’s more, mysteries encourage readers to really engage with a story, which in turn helps them to remember it better. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the more children read, the more likely they are to become lifelong readers. This means that generations of authors will have audiences. And when young people read mysteries, they often choose to read in that genre as adults. This can only be good news for crime writers – ahem…
*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s Belle.