As this is posted, it would have been Enid Blyton’s 120th birthday. As you’ll know, Blyton was one of the most prolific and successful writer of children’s stories of her time. If you grew up reading the Famous Five series, or the Five Find-Outer series, or the Secret Seven series, you’ll know that she created a number of memorable characters and adventures. And generations of children began a lifelong love of books and of crime fiction because of her writing. Blyton certainly wasn’t the first to create young protagonists, or series of books written for children. But she drew in millions of young people, and her books are still very popular.
Many people have been critical of Blyton’s work, pointing out sexism and xenophobia in her stories. That criticism has, of course, been levelled at several other authors of her time, and it’s hard to separate an author from the era in which she or he writes. That said, though, it’s hard to deny Blyton’s influence on children’s fiction.
Today’s children’s mystery fiction is as diverse and varied as its adult counterpart. And it features a wide range of young protagonists. For instance, David Adler has created several series for young people. One is the Cam Jansen series. These books feature Jennifer ‘Cam’ Jansen, so-called because of her photographic memory. A Grade Five student, she and her best friend, Eric, solve mysteries with the help of her ability to remember what she’s seen. Another Adler series features Cam as a younger child. Adler has written several other series for young readers as well.
Bill Galvan and Chad Denton have created a comic series called the Scrapyard Detectives. This series features a group of five young sleuths who meet regularly at a local scrapyard. Each of them has a different background, and brings a different sort of expertise to the team. Robert (whose father owns the scrapyard) is the ‘idea person;’ Jinn Lee has a knack for putting together pieces of a mystery puzzle; Lisan does background research; and so on. One purpose of the series is to promote multiculturalism. But there are also mysteries to be solved. And, speaking personally (I’ve used these in some work I’ve done), the focus is at least as much on the mysteries as it is on messages to be sent. And that works well for young readers, who don’t want to be preached to any more than most adults want it.
Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series features the fourteen-year-old younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. The series is a pastiche series, so there are plenty of ‘crossover characters’ from the original Arthur Conan Doyle series. But at the same time, this series’ focus is Enola and the cases that she solves. It’s intended for the middle grades, and it’s an interesting ‘bridge’ to the original Holmes stories.
Writing as Lewis B. Montgomery, Mara Rockliff has created a children’s mystery series featuring Milo and his friend Jasmyne ‘Jazz,’ who are detectives in training. They’ve sent away for a Super Sleuth kit from expert detective Dash Marlowe, who gives them long-distance advice on sleuthing. This series is aimed at beginning readers from ages 7-11, and includes ‘asides’ to the reader to help young people learn deduction, logical thinking, and some academic skills, too.
There’s also Fireside Books’ Leaders and Legacies series. These stories feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, so readers get to solve mysteries along with the protagonists. They also learn a bit about the history of the country, and about the prime ministers themselves.
Of course, not all mystery books for children are in series, as many of Blyton’s were. There are plenty of standalone mysteries out there. And they’re available for even the youngest readers. For example, there’s Herbert Yee Wong’s Detective Small in the Amazing Banana Caper, and James and Kimberly Dean’s Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. Both of those (and plenty more) are picture books, so that young people can be drawn into the mystery, even if they’re just starting to read.
What about little ones who aren’t quite ready to read yet? There are great resources out there for them, too. For example, you may not know this, but crime writer D.S. Nelson is an expert children’s storyteller. You can visit her website right here and get to know her work. She’s also created a series of fun and engaging mini-mysteries featuring Hugo the detective dog. You can watch them right here. Storytelling can be a very effective way to introduce children to stories and, later, books. Add in a mystery, and you can hook a child on crime fiction for life. Crime writers everywhere will thank you for that.
Did you grow up with Enid Blyton? If you did, what are your Blyton memories? If you didn’t, what are your first memories of cracking fictional cases?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ What’s With Terry?