Monday, May 16, 2016

How to Write a Great Mystery for Children

Last week I shared an article on writing mysteries, first published in Writer’s Guide to 2012. Here’s another section of the article, focused on writing mysteries for children and teenagers.

Starting Young

Children may become mystery fans at an early age. Juliana Hanford, Senior Editor at Kane Press, says, “I vividly remember the very first time I was reading a mystery on my own and had that ‘can’t put it down!’ feeling. I think that feeling can make kids not just mystery lovers but book lovers for life!”

 “I guess children enjoy reading mysteries for the same reason adults do,” says Mara Rockliff, who writes a humorous chapter book mystery series under the pen name Lewis B. Montgomery. “They’re fun, they’re exciting, they’re full of surprises and suspense. And a mystery series offers the chance to keep coming back to characters we love.”

As a bonus, mysteries stretch the way kids think. Of her Milo & Jazz Mysteries, Rockliff says, “Kids read these books for fun, but teachers like them because the detective lessons teach critical thinking skills. For instance, setting a trap for a culprit equals predicting and testing; circumstantial evidence equals making inferences. And the back of every book includes puzzles and games to help the reader hone those skills.”

Mysteries for kids aren’t quite the same as mysteries for adults, of course. “Practically all adult mysteries are murder mysteries, but in a realistic chapter book, you can’t have kids knocking each other off,” Rockliff says. “One of the big challenges is thinking of new crimes that are serious enough to be investigated but not too serious. If it’s theft, it needs to be a funny and unusual theft, as in The Case of the Stinky Socks or The Case of the Missing Moose. Or it might be something off the wall: figuring out how the public pool turned purple overnight, or trying to prove a pet psychic is a fake.”

By the time readers reach the teen years, fewer crimes are off-limits. Sara Beitia wrote The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon, which she calls “A noir-ish contemporary Young Adult.” She says, “In reality, kids can and do encounter the heavy stuff – love and death and people with bad intentions – and like anyone, they mull these things over and try to digest the implications. And they expect to encounter the heavy stuff in literature, too. Perhaps it helps with the digesting. In dealing with these darker matters, it’s rather amazing what can be covered in kid lit [and] kids often shock adults with a frank interest in the lurid. Still, everyone has an opinion as to how much kids can and should be exposed to in books.”

Most children’s book publishers are open to mysteries, but don’t specialize. Brian Farrey, Flux Acquisitions editor, says, “I’ve heard from countless librarians at the American Library Association conferences that their teens are looking for more mysteries, to the point where librarians direct them to adult books to satisfy the need. [Therefore] my ears perk up a bit if I’m presented with one in submissions. But I don’t acquire based on fads or trends.”

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced PlottingLearn more at or her Amazon page, 

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