Mysteries provide a perfect entree for exploring a wide variety of critical thinking skills. With their emphasis on clear observation, logical thinking, and well-drawn conclusions, mysteries support many Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They also lend themselves to an array of interesting writing assignments, an important component of the CCSS and one on which many states are placing particular emphasis.
This month’s column features some of our favorite mysteries, along with ideas for expanding the learning possibilities presented by each title and/or series. Employing the Common Core State Standards doesn’t mean that learning can’t be fun. Kids love mysteries, so why not use them to teach new skills in thinking, researching, and writing? We guarantee that these titles will spark student interest.
A to Z Mysteries, Books D-G (The Deadly Dungeon, The Empty Envelope, The Falcon’s Feathers, The Goose’s Gold). Written by Ron Roy. Narrated by David Pittu. 3 CDs. 3:25 hrs. Listening Library. 2005. ISBN 978-0-3072-0735-7. $30. K-Gr 3
From A to Z, these beginning chapter book mysteries maintain a comfortable format with each audiobook combining three or four stories from the series. Each “case” title is a letter of the alphabet and continuity is nicely incorporated with Pittu narrating them all. His conversational and friendly voice fits the pacing as Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose band together to solve each case. Listeners will be asking for all the letters of the alphabet.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.1.2 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media.
Instructional Extension: Connecting the theme or subject of a story to research can strengthen both the listening experience and learning. For example, to discover more about the birds in The Falcon’s Feathers, use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All about Birds website (www.allaboutbirds.org). Enter the search term “falcon” to find information about the peregrine falcon, gyrfalcon, and prairie falcon.
Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues. Written by Donald Sobol. Narrated by Greg Steinbruner. 2 CDs. 1:18 hrs. Recorded Books. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4281-7221-0. $25.75. Gr 3-5
This title, one in the classic series about 10-year-old detective Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, features ten new cases for the Idaville mystery solver. Encyclopedia, his police chief dad, and his group of friends follow the trail of each case to its satisfying end. The familiar format of presenting clues for listeners to put together gives opportunities for thinking and problem solving. Steinbruner’s pacing is comfortable, highlighting the simple sentences and pausing before each solution to build suspense,
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.9 Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters.
Instructional Extension: The University of North Carolina’s excellent Learn NC website (www.learningnc.org/lp/pages/3031) offers several activities to enliven lesson plans for the first book in this series, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. The rubric for a good mystery story and the Mystery Worksheet are adaptable to any book in the series and provide a jumping-off point for writing projects.
The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case: A Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Book for Young Readers. Written by Alexander McCall Smith. Narrated by Adjoa Andoh. CD. 1 hr. Listening Library. 2012. ISBN 978-0-4490-1142-3. $15. K-Gr 3
Intrepid female detective, Precious Ramotswe, is introduced here as a child, solving her first case. Andoh’s excellent narration presents the lilt, cadence, and authenticity of Botswana culture. Adult fans of the well-known #1 Ladies Detective Agency will be listening along to find out how Precious came to become a world-famous detective. Sure to provide fun for family and classroom audiences.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2 Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths, from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Instructional Extension: Classroom discussion and research about Botswana could follow listening to this mystery. Facts and information about the country can be found in many online encyclopedias, books, and the Botswana embassy website (www.botswanaembassy.org) where the country’s history, a video gallery, and visitor attractions are included. Students may choose one topic to share with the class to highlight any study about Africa.
Milo and Jazz Mysteries: The Case of the Stinky Socks. Written by Lewis B. Montgomery. Narrated by Chantale Hosein and Vinnie Penna. CD. 48 min. Live Oak Media. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4301-1199-3. $15.95. K-Gr 3
Milo has just received his Dash Marlow Super Sleuth kit when he discovers his first mystery. Working, somewhat reluctantly, with new neighbor Jazz, these two young detectives set out to determine who stole Jazz’s brother’s lucky socks from his high school locker. The pair use their critical thinking skills to find the socks before the big baseball game. Penna and Hosein’s performances are appropriately young and their pacing heightens the tension and excitement of this first mystery in Montgomery’s series.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL.2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
Instructional Extension: Dash Marlow instructs his followers to use these “Super Sleuthing Skills: Observe, Think Logically, Draw Conclusions.” A fun writing project can be built around any one of the “Milo and Jazz Mysteries” by using flow maps to organize the sequence of events with the goal of producing a summary of the story that includes at least three details from the book to answer the questions posed in the standard.
The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity. Written by Mac Barnett. Narrated by Arte Johnson. 3 CDs. 2:55 hrs. Listening Library. 2010. ISBN 978-0-3077-1042-0. $30. Gr 4-6
When 12-year-old Steve Brixton, a fan of Bailey Brothers detective novels, is mistaken for a real detective, he must elude librarians, police, and the mysterious Mr. E as he seeks a missing quilt containing coded information. Arte Johnson gives Steve’s predicament a matter-of-fact, almost sardonic tone, with methodical pacing and understatement that provides listeners with laugh-out-loud enjoyment of this wholly improbable story. Fans will also enjoy the other titles in this series, The Ghostwriter Secret and It Happened on a Train, also available from Listening Library.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.7 Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics.
Instructional Extension: Visit this go-to website that provides thorough information and multiple ideas for classroom extensions as well as descriptions of mystery series, novels, and picture books: Carol Hurst Children’s Literature—Mysteries in the Classroom Fiction, Non-Fiction and Activities for Pre-School through Ninth Grade (www.carolhurst.com/subjects/mysteries.html).
Pair the following two titles for an interesting comparison of Victorian and contemporary girl sleuths:
The Case of the Missing Marquess, an Enola Holms Mystery. Written by Nancy Springer. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren. 4 CDs. 4:31 hrs. Recorded Books. 2006. ISBN 978-1-4193-8985-6. $51.75. Gr 5-8
Smart and resourceful, 14-year-old Enola is determined to avoid the finishing school her older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, have selected for her when her mother suddenly vanishes. Setting off for London on a bicycle, Enola stumbles upon another missing person’s case—a young marquess who seems to have been kidnapped. Kellgren delves into this adventure with her customary gusto and superb pacing, providing a host of excellent 19th-century character voices. Lucky for listeners, this is just the beginning of a long series, all narrated by the incomparable Kellgren.
The London Eye Mystery. Written by Siobhan Dowd. Narrated by Paul Checquer. AudioGo. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4056-5462-3. $25. Gr 6-10
Ted’s cousin Salim comes to visit from Manchester before moving to New York with his mother, and Salim’s only wish is to ride the London Eye, the massive wheel erected to mark the new millennium. Ted (whose brain is “wired differently”) and his older sister Kat watch Salim board the Eye and are stunned when he doesn’t get off. What follows is an intricate, intriguing, and thrilling race against time as Ted uses his keen observation skills to find his cousin. Checquer’s measured pacing accurately portrays Ted’s personality and reinforces the family conflicts, and his variety of British accents provides context for American listeners.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.
Instructional Extension: After listening to this mystery, students may be interested to learn more about “Interesting Things You Never Knew about The London Eye” by visiting http://ow.ly/gHXMI. The LondonNet site (http://ow.ly/GHXEM) not only includes facts, but also provides links to other London attractions such as the Tower of London. This is a good place to start a class project investigating London’s most important historical places.
The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour. Written by Michael D. Beil. Narrated by Tai Alexandra Ricci. 6 CDs. 7 hrs. Listening Library. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7393-7960-8. $50. Gr 4-6
Three friends attending the all-girls Catholic school, St. Veronica’s, become embroiled in a mystery of major proportions when they try to help a strange older woman who lives next to the church. A precious artifact has gone missing and the girls must use their best math and language skills to discover its whereabouts and expose the villain. Ricci personifies the voices of the young sleuths and creates believable voices for the supporting characters. Listeners may want to follow along with or refer to the print edition to see the graphs, charts, and other puzzles that serve as clues. Three more mysteries featuring these girl detectives provide additional fun.
Common Core Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
Instructional Extension: Girl detectives are an interesting group, from the classic Nancy Drew to Harriet the Spy to the young women in the previous two examples. Students can prepare a chart to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between girl and boy detectives in their methods of solving cases, leading to an interesting writing project.
Sharon Grover is Head of Youth Services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan was a school librarian and the district library supervisor for the Arlington (VA) Public Schools before her retirement. They are co-authors of Listening to Learn (ALA Editions, 2011).