KRIMES FOR KIDS: A Comparison for the Ages

With everything so dicey these days pertaining to public education in the post-pandemic era, it was nice to hear some good news for a change: at a recent dinner party, my friend Maggie, who works as a librarian in a local middle school, told me that her students love mysteries! Turns out kids do sometimes have good taste, and even it that probably doesn’t extend to reading my “Krimes for Kids” posts or the excellent “Minor Felonies,” the sub-division of my buddy JJ’s blog The Invisible Event where he shares intel on all sorts of authors and titles I’ve never heard of that should be right up a junior mystery fan’s alley. I know the parents who read JJ’s blog will thrill as I have to being introduced to authors like Marthe Jocelyn, Maureen Johnson, and the team of M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, who currently seem to be leading kid’s fiction into a Golden Age of Junior Detection.

I have never let age stop me from reading kids’ mysteries; in fact, I think that nowadays juvenile fiction is where you will find the books that most closely adhere to the standards and practices of classic crime novels. Admittedly, some books only take on the semblance of a Golden Age mystery – closed circle, presentation of a crime as a puzzle – while sadly paying mere lip service to the mechanics of the puzzle itself. But other authors are getting really really clever about it, and while I want to urge my fellow Older People to check some of these titles out, the really good news is that Kid Mysteries are likely to build a following for the genre that will keep the GAD renaissance blooming for a long time to come. 

I have to warn you, though: while those of you who dip your toes in these waters might prefer the teen market because these books deal with relatively more mature themes (and you might feel vaguely closer in age to adolescents), the stories written for the 8 – 13 set handle the puzzle element much more cleverly than those aiming at the young adult, or YA, market (ages 14 – 18). That might be because kid’s books focus first and foremost on plot. It isn’t that these authors forego character; rather, those who populate these books tend to resemble the characters of classic mystery fiction. A kid stands in the center, serving as protagonist and sleuth. Often, there are other kids serving as friends and enemies, but there are also adults – because adults are still important to little kids. Adult characters in kid’s mysteries run the gamut from sensational to sinister and are often the most colorful and quirky characters in the books.

A perfect example of this – and my current favorite – is Adventures on Trains, the marvelous series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman that I have written about extensively! There are six books so far, and we can only pray for more. The central relationship here, the one between young Harrison Beck, ace sketch artist and blossoming detective, and his journalist Uncle Nat has certainly blossomed throughout the series. But the focus is always on the case at hand, whether it be a theft, a murder, or even international espionage. The suspects are adults, and they are invariably an interesting bunch. Meanwhile, Hal Beck always meets one or more kids on each adventure who act as sidekicks or even as suspects. These kids often teach Hal something about the part of the world he finds himself in while providing new friendships for our hero. 

Yes, I said “teach!” Unlike teen mysteries, crime novels for kids tend to have a secondary factor riding along with the story. It often is something a bit (shudder!) educational, but it has been nicely disguised to ease the pain of learning. In the AoT books, it’s the trains themselves and their destinations: Leonard and Sedgman have taken us around the world, from the British Isles to middle Europe, from Africa to Australia, from the U.S.A. to the coldest regions of the Arctic Circle. The train routes mimic existing railways that the authors have often experienced themselves, and the scenery provides both a rich background for the mystery and often clues steeped in the culture at hand. 

Similarly,  Marthe Jocelyn’s four books offer us a look into Edwardian British life and, most specifically, into a fictionalized depiction of the childhood of none other than Agatha Christie. Jocelyn’s young sleuth Aggie Morton shares a hundred descriptors with the famous author. What’s more, the central relationship in this series is between Aggie and another child in her neighborhood – a Belgian immigrant named Hector Perot, who seems so familiar to us it’s as if a little mustache is threatening to spout over his pre-pubescent lip! We relish the details of their lives in a seaside town that resembles Torquay, but the main thrust of these books are the mysteries the pair solve together by questioning suspects and sussing out clues. 

YA mysteries are different: like the teens they target, these books focus almost entirely on a much smaller world where the kids themselves dwell. Relationships are everything here: mostly they are of the romantic (or, more common, the thwarted romantic) variety, but friendships are nearly as important, particularly in their ability to change from minute to minute. Not surprisingly, adults are far less important in YA mysteries: parents work, teachers teach (and usually, they teach badly!), and the occasional creepy janitor or neighbor pops in to serve as a weak red herring. Maybe because younger kids are far less introspective, kids’ mysteries tend to be far more action-packed than their YA brethren. The classic concept that most YA mystery authors have best perfected is the hook to reel us in; unfortunately, (for this long-past-teen reader, at least), even the best of hooks soon give way all too soon to a great deal of angsty discussion involving unrequited love and social popularity, with a bit of attending detection to take us from one angsty moment to another.

YA mysteries have been a cottage industry longer than kids’ mysteries, with authors like R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and Lois Duncan churning them out through the 80’s and 90’s. They tend to follow a pattern of a small group of friends dealing with puzzling, usually horrific situations that are ultimately linked to a past crime. Basically, they are slasher films with less than a tenth of the gore one finds in those movies. One of this closed circle is the nominal heroine, (in films, we call her the last girl, but the death count in these books seldom rises above two), and the surprise killer is so very oftensomeone extremely close to her – her best friend, her boyfriend, her stepbrother or -sister – that it seldom feels like much of a surprise. And while the plot keeps chugging along, full of mysterious threats or attacks and lots and lots of conversations about them, there is just as much emphasis laid on the inner life of the heroine which somehow manages to skirt any real insight into teen issues. (As I recall, every one of my friends in high school felt as crazy as I did, but none of us turned out to be a serial killing lunatic.) The motive for the villain is usually incredibly shallow (“Dad always liked you best”) or obvious (“You didn’t know that the girl you ran over and then buried in the mine was . . . . . . my sister!!!”)  

At least Maureen Johnson has put some effort into offering us an engrossing puzzle plot. Her Truly Devious trilogy is far better plotted and written than most of the books Stine or Pike churned out, with richer characters and a complex storyline involving two series of crimes that occur at a posh secluded school in Vermont during a time span of over eighty years. The heroine, freshman student and true crime buff Stevie Bell, is compelling, although she, too, is trying to find herself – and trying to figure out which of the hot-but-troubled guys in her circle would make the best boyfriend. (First, she has to cross off the potential sociopaths and murderers.) It takes 1257 pages to tell the story of “Truly Devious,” and I’m not convinced that any mystery should go on for this long. Still, I look forward to reading the stand-alone sequels featuring Stevie that Johnson has written, two of which already exist and stand waiting for me on my shelf.

As a test of my theory, I decided to pick a new example of each level of mystery to read and compare. I turned, as I usually do, to The Invisible Event. Representing the kids is Belly Up, the first in a series of eight (so far) books by Stuart Gibbs about Teddy Fitzroy, a young man living in an animal theme park. And in the YA corner is This Book Kills, the maiden effort of Ravena Guron. Gibbs hails from Los Angeles, where he writes screenplays for movies and TV as well as creating multiple book series for kids. Guron is an attorney living in London, and – as happens so much more often in YA books than in kids’ books – references her love for Agatha Christie in her biography. 

So let’s begin: age before belly, er, beauty . . . 

*     *     *     *     *

Random bits of conversation floated around in my head. All of us, exclaiming again and again, that nothing made sense – they were a thousand trails, and they all seemed to lead nowhere. Summer – even me – pointing out that it was just like a story I would write. 

And then came the brainwave: none of it made sense, because it wasn’t supposed to make sense. It was all designed to confuse, for us to latch onto the wrong information. It didn’t matter that the murder was based around my short story. It didn’t matter that I had no secrets to share with the police. 

None of the clues mattered.

That pretty much describes the mystery floating around Ravena Guron’s This Book Kills, which is a standard YA puzzler without much puzzle. Unlike Gibbs’ novel, the setting here is generic, one of those posh private academies that abound in YA fiction, where adult authority is neutered, both on the home and school front, where rich kids belong to evil secret societies, and where  the lone scholarship student wanders the halls, looking for a friend. 

To be fair, Guron changes things up . . . by having two scholarship students at the prestigious Heybuckle School, and when the book starts, our heroine/narrator, Jess Choudhary has exactly one friend. Other than that, everything is pretty much status quo. The classroom teachers pretty much leave the students to themselves, except to issue weird orders for plot purposes. There is a secret society, but it seems to make little sense. (Ah, but that might be a clue!) Most important to our discussion is that there is a hook of sorts: resident campus star and bad boy (depending on whom you talk to) Hugh Henry Van Boren is murdered in the woods near school, and certain details of the crime scene mirror details found in a crime story that Jess co-wrote with the other scholarship student, the very tetchy (and much more interesting) Summer Johnson. 

And . . . that’s it. The hook doesn’t really go anywhere. If someone is trying to frame Jess or Summer for the crime, that issue stops with the story, which was mysteriously stolen from the classroom before the teacher could read it. (And, in one of those strange rules-for-plot-purposes, the teacher demands that all stories be handwritten when submitted, thereby excluding the possibility of a second copy.) Besides, Jess’ connection to Hugh is tenuous at best; she has only recently discovered that the guy was cheating on his campus sweetheart Millie (Millicent Cordelia Calthrope-Newton-Rose . . . Guron differentiates the rich students from the poor by giving the rich ones ridiculous names) with Jess’ only friend, Clementine-Tangerine Briggs (really! But you can call her Clem). 

In addition to Jess and Hugh, Millie, Clem and Summer, we meet in rapid succession Eddy and Tommy, Arthur and Annabelle, Hattie, Lucy and Kate – plus a handful of staff members and cops. There’s a floorplan of the school at the top of the book, but after the stand-out setting of the Ellingham Academy in Truly Devious, this school seems so . . . ordinary, and the floor plan is mere decoration. Jess feels compelled to solve the mystery, not so much because she is a suspect (the police record the information about her story and then drop it completely) but because the snobbish school board would rather blame the scholarship students for the murder. Because that’s what they do in these sorts of books. Still, it would’ve been interesting if Guron has gone deeper into what it’s like for Jess to be one of two students of color and the poorest kid at school, but she only grazes the surface.

Jess’ investigation is sadly not very interesting because Jess is a terrible investigator. It turns out, however, that Summer Johnson is good at finding out information, which leads to the real purpose of this case – for Jess to make new friends and find love with the hunky (and much kinder than his rich buds) Tommy Poppleton. (Yes, that is his last name.) Between pages 1-364, Jess’ heart “flutters” for Tommy thirty-seven times, after which she is quick to inform us that she is not worthy of such a catch. 

So Jess’ primary purpose is not to prove her innocence but to raise her self-esteem enough to be worthy of love and friendship. Of course, she also has to worry about whether Tommy is the killer because – well, I imagine Jess has read a lot of these YA mysteries herself and knows the chances are high of the boyfriend, or the best friend, or the jealous stepsister (if Jess had one) turning out to be the culprit. Sad to say, Guron does not disappoint in this regard. I spotted the murderer as soon as they used a trick that is as old as the GAD hills (Carr and Christie used it frequently). Still, with every parent, cop, and staff member revealed to be, at best, inept, but also venal, dishonest, and craven, it all fall’s on Jess’ insecure shoulders to prove herself worthy of love a good detective. Fortunately, in a late, late scene, she redeems herself in front of the school board, saves her scholarship, and finds love and friendship. 

In the end, This Book Kills does what most teen mysteries seem to do: provide a criminal scenario that acts as a frame on which to gauge the emerging adulthood of its main characters. Even the secret society becomes more about how kids seek popularity in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons, rather than a decent red herring in a murder mystery. What’s disturbing here is that Jess receives no help, no guidance or support from any adults. Basically, she is on her own. 

Which is how all too many teenagers tend to view the world . . . 

*     *     *     *     *

It’s almost unfair to compare Guron’s book to Belly Up, the first title in author Stuart Gibbs’ “FunJungle” series. I will say that both books feature a main character named Summer who in each case, adds some wonderful spice to the proceedings. But Belly Up delivers the goods in terms of mystery, even as – yes, ugh, I’ll admit it – it teaches us a whole bunch of great stuff. That the educational part never gets in the way of the mystery – in fact, it weaves itself into and enhances the case – is proof positive of the tendency for kids’ mysteries to blow their YA counterparts out of the water. 

Let’s start with our detective: in any mystery, readers appreciate a detective who knows their shit, and in enterprising sleuth Teddy Fitzroy can wallow through the crap with the best of them – literally: 

The heel print had definitely been made recently, though. There was a tiny ball of deer poop squashed beneath it. I know my poop. I learned how to track animals in the Congo, and one of the keys to tracking something is knowing what kind of poop it leaves behind.

Teddy is no Holmesian prodigy, but he does have a fascinating background that arms him with specialized knowledge. He spent most of his life living in the Congo with his mother, a famous gorilla scientist, and his father, an equally well-known wildlife photographer. Life in and about the jungle imbued in Teddy a deep love and respect for animals, as well as a great deal of understanding about how each species operates. When war breaks out in the Congo, the Fitzroys have to make the difficult decision to leave the world they love and return to the United States. 

Now Teddy’s mom is the chief researcher of primate behavior at FunJungle, the world’s newest, largest and most fabulous zoo, built in Texas Hill Country by billionaire J. J. McCracken as a sort of overkill present to his daughter Summer (and, of course, as a tax write-off!) A book series couldn’t ask for a less generic setting than FunJungle, and it’s clear that Gibbs had a blast conjuring up this combination zoo/theme park-on-steroids in his head. We’re introduced to many of the massive exhibits that make up the park, including SafariLand, Monkey Mountain, Carnivore Canyon, and World of Reptiles, all ripe fodder for future books in the series. Here, the action begins in the park’s most popular exhibit, Hippo River, located right at the entrance to FunJungle:

The exhibit took up 10 acres – and once you entered it, it was really like being in Africa. You started at a thundering, 150-foot waterfall, then hiked through a jungle filled with birds and monkeys, visiting scenic viewpoints, from which you could see flocks of flamingos, huge Nile crocodiles – and, of course, the hippos.

The star attraction of the exhibit is Henry, the official mascot of FunJungle and the lovable main character in a Saturday morning cartoon show on TV to promote the park. Henry’s face adorns every mug, poster and pennant in the gift store. Unfortunately for the zoo community – but lucky for us mystery fans – Henry is a fake! Oh, he’s a hippopotamus alright, but his real name is Brutus, and he has cut a swath of terror in theme parks and circuses as the meanest hippo on earth. He has a habit – which, it turns out, is a talent bestowed upon hippopotami – of shooting his crap out in a large stream to the audience . . . 

“. . . in the course of one week, Brutus had sullied two senators, the Secretary of State, the Swedish ambassador, and the president’s daughter, along with four of her Secret Service agents.

Teddy actually lives on the grounds of FunJungle with his parents and a lot of the other employees. Being the only kid for miles around (San Antonio, the nearest city, is over half an hour away), not even the biggest zoo in the world can keep life from being a bit boring for Teddy. He manages his time by wandering around the park and occasionally committing pranks on behalf of the animals, like giving the apes at Monkey Mountain water balloons so they can fight back against the customers who hurl garbage at them.

Teddy’s antics land him in hot water and serve to introduce the ill-tempered adults who work at FunJungle – “Large Marge” O’Malley, the perpetually angry security guard; Martin del Gato, the Director of Operations, who, despite his position (and his name) despises animals; Doc Deakin, the grumpy but caring veterinarian who we meet while he is lancing a boil on a warthog; and slick PR representative Pete Thwacker, who never met a mirror he didn’t love. All of these people will have their work cut out for them when Henry is discovered dead in his pool, his mammoth legs sticking straight up in the air.   Circumstances lead to Teddy learning that Henry has been murdered, but a cover-up is initiated right away, leading our hero to decide that it is up to him to find justice for the murdered hippopotamus. 

Along the way, Teddy befriends another kid who will clearly become important to the series:

I found myself in a small, open pocket of fresh air, face-to-face, with Summer McCracken, herself. She was taller than I expected, a few inches more than me. Her blonde hair hung to her shoulders, and she wore a pink blouse, shorts, and sandals. But what really grabbed my attention with her eyes. They were an amazingly bright blue, like the wings of a Morpho butterfly. The pictures of her never did them justice.

Summer and Teddy join forces to discover the truth behind Henry’s death, and their investigation leads them into one life-threatening situation after another. Fortunately, the adults here are nothing like the useless grown-ups in This Book Kills. Some are awful, of course – a mystery needs its suspects and red herrings – while others, like Teddy’s parents,  are sharp and sympathetic. Once they embrace the truth of Teddy’s findings, the Fitzroys are all over the case to ensure the safety of their son and the animals. The stakes are high, but the tone is warm and funny. And Teddy exemplifies the best in kid detective heroes, laying out the travails of being a minor-age sleuth and his appreciation of allies of every age: 

When you’re a kid, everyone’s naturally suspicious of you. I know I didn’t have the best reputation around FunJungle, but still, if an adult acts like they belong somewhere, more often than not, no one gives them a second glance. As a kid, you stick out. There are plenty of places you’re not supposed to go. There were plenty of questions you can’t get away with asking. It’s very hard to be taken seriously when everyone’s wondering where your mother is.

In addition to a riveting crime story, Belly Up imparts an important message about animal rights and protection. It’s tragic to see how humans take the animals in captivity for granted or, worse, use them to their own advantage. Everyone, from disrespectful customers to self-serving employees to rabid animal rights groups, comes in for their share of criticism, inspiring in readers a real sympathy for, and understanding of, the amazingly diverse natural world on display and of what it takes to appropriately protect these species. I, for one, can’t wait to dive deeper into Teddy Fitzroy’s adventures.

8 thoughts on “KRIMES FOR KIDS: A Comparison for the Ages

  1. Thanks for this Brad. I remember reading a bunch of Enid Blyton books as a kid in the mid 1970s along with the three Investogators series too, but couldn’t tell you anything about the contents some 45 years later. I suppose about 15 years ago I read the entire Lemony Snicket series, in wonderful mini hardback editions, and really enjoyed that and it made much more of an impression. Which I think means I agree with you 😁 But that’s it, no other books of that kind. I graduated go Chritie, Ian Fleming and Chandler very fast and never looked back. But I will be giving a few of these a go now! Time to see what I’ve been missing in my headlong rush to be a grown up …

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  2. I’ll veer into teenage fiction from time to time, but there’s a reason I’m eight books deep into two of Stuart Gibbs’ series yet gave up on Truly Devious and Brittany Carvallaro’s Holmes-expansion series after one book each: the puzzle is the thing that interests me, and Gibbs — and others, aiming at the younger market as you say — are free to concentrate on that,

    I enjoyed TBK more than you, but then I didn’t spot the main deception; the FunJungle books get better as they go, with Teddy becoming less of a jerk and the central relationships evolving in surprising ways (plus, you learn a lot about poo…). So I’m delighted to have given you another good steer 🙂

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