Category Archives: Different Children


I love reading children’s fiction and especially mysteries.  Why?

Like most of us mystery readers and writers, as a youngster when I became bored with Dick and Jane, Spot and Fluffy, I started reading The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Vicky Barr (Air Stewardess), and other mystery series titles for children.  When I began to write my myself, I realized I knew mysteries and especially children’s mysteries better than most other genres.

Do you remember Cherry Ames, Sue Barton, and Trixie Belden? Few plots stayed with me, but one title was memorable. The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May prompted me to beg my mother for a baby sister when I was ten and then eleven. Surprise! I do have a sister who is 12 years younger than me. (I found out recently that my favorite Bobbsey Twins’ book was highly regarded by the famous children’s author, Lois Lowry.  Read her The Willoughbys for allusions to many juvenile titles we all enjoyed).

Being a big sister made me want to grow up even faster and I began to read adult mysteries such as Perry Mason by Earle Stanley Gardner plus the MacDonalds, both Ross and John D., then I progressed to psychological thrillers such as Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

After my children were born I volunteered in the school library where my hidden love emerged. I realized I always wanted to be a librarian:  to talk about and share books with readers of all ages. I obtained my MLS and realized my goal of being a children’s librarian in a public school in Montgomery County, MD, in 1992!

Now the titles we have available are not as formulaic as the early mystery series were written. If you haven’t read books for this age, you are in for a treat. Clues, red herrings, and meaty plots with unique characters are found in every bookstore and school library.

Where to begin? One of the standard classic children’s mystery novels, a Newbery medal winner, is The Westing Game. Written in 1978 by Ellen Raskin, I haven’t read it yet.  Here are Raskin’s intriguing first lines: “The sun set in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!”

Speaking of children’s book awards, Joan Lowry Nixon won the coveted Edgar, given out by Mystery Writers of America membership, three times in the 1980’s with titles as varied as The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore, The Séance, and The Other Side of the Dark.

Even in the 1970’s, children’s mystery authors were introducing diverse characters, which is the newest trend in children’s literature. Skip ahead to my time as a school librarian. Blue Balliett’s art mysteries set in Chicago grabbed me when I as an elementary librarian. learning the newest titles to share. I followed up her debut Chasing Vermeer (2004) reading the other three in her series about art heists solved by a multi-cultural group of pre-teens. Balliett’s mysteries include boys and girls from a middle school, their creative teacher, and a math game called Pentominoes. I cannot explain how these plastic pieces help one protagonist, Calder, but the author will make you understand why these manipulatives are central to solving clues.

Many mystery writers are now mixing genres, adding adventure, historical fiction, humor, and maybe some fantasy to their novels. Two examples of current titles I enjoyed in 2017 include Kate Milford’s sequel to The Greenglass House, The Ghosts of Greenglass House,  and a debut by Caroline Carlson called The World’s Greatest Detective. It would be a spoiler to mention which genres are mixed in these mysteries! I am proud to mention Carlson’s novel (and my grandson’s favorite detective novel) has been nominated for an Agatha this year!).

Chris Grabenstein’s fun series adds gaming and holograms as well as competitions to his Lemoncello Library books. Boys and girls compete in a modern-day Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-like contest. Another great children’s mystery, recommended to me by my favorite mystery Indie bookseller, is The Book Scavenger. Do you know children who enjoy geocaching? Jennifer Chambliss Bertman combines the idea of searching for clues in geographic locations with the concept of book titles. The setting is everyone’s favorite: San Francisco. Think Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Allen Poe and Jack Kerouac. Children learn about these famous authors while reading Bertram’s books and scavenging along with the characters. I hear there is a great sequel to The Book Scavenger!

Another favorite author includes Mary Downing Hahn, a Children’s Book Guild member in the Washington, DC chapter. Her ghost stories are deliciously scary according to the students where I volunteer. They loved Took and One For Sorrow (2017). Sometimes Hahn adds time travel elements to her books. She won the Edgar Award for Juvenile mysteries in 2010 for Closed for the Season, now on my TBR list. I can recommend her earlier books such as The Doll in the Garden, Wait Till Helen Comes: a Ghost Story, and A Time for Andrew (especially appealing to guy readers.)

 How about contemporary topics introduced in a mystery?  Gordon Korman has penned a series which explains the complications of cloning in his Masterminds series. This intriguing set of books reminded me of Nancy Farmer’s science fiction mysteries, such as The Eye, the Ear and the Arm as well as The House of the Scorpion for YA readers.

Wesley King shared true-to-life experiences in a mystery featuring Daniel who suffers from OCD without a diagnosis. His Edgar, Silver Birch, and Bank Street Best Book of the Year awarded title, OCDaniel for high school students, provides a great adventure in eighth grade and on the football team with clues surprising even Daniel and his new friends. The author astonishes us when Daniel receives an unsigned note which reads,  “Help me.” I agree with the Booklist starred review that OCDaniel, “a perceptive, first person narrative is sometimes painful, sometimes amusing, and always rewarding.”  The mystery sneaks up on the reader as “a bonus” to this unusual novel which will appeal to older middle schoolers and high school readers.

If you readers enjoy pets in your novels, try Spencer Quinn’s series about Bowser and his owner Birdie. Quinn’s adult series about Bernie, the dog, will remind you of the author’s  fun and unique technique of solving mysteries when the main detective’s sidekick cannot “speak” out loud. Another Agatha nominated author in other years, Quinn has written Woof (2015), Arf (2016) and Bow Wow (2017) in the Birdie and Bowser series.

The Harlem Charade is a children’s mystery debut nominated this year for an Agatha. Natasha Tarplay, author of I Love My Hair, creates a contemporary mystery with diverse young protagonists: a homeless boy, a Hispanic girl living above a bodega, and a secretly rich female friend, all of whom find community spirit along with Harlem’s art history. (By the way, Gordon Korman provided his “thumbs up” blurb on the cover of this new book as he complimented the twists and pacing of Tarplay’s novel.

When I don’t read mysteries, I love historical fiction. York: The Shadow Cipher (Book 1) by Laura Ruby is a distinctive NYC historical mystery. Beginning in the 1800’s with a prominent fictional family, the action moves into the present. I cannot even describe the elevator in the current family’s historic home. You will have to discover the fantastic way the contemporary twins leave their apartment to solve this intriguing family mystery.

What is my conclusion?  SO MANY BOOKS; SO LITTLE TIME!

I am looking forward to meeting and greeting new and old author friends at Malice Domestic 30, a great fan conference in Bethesda, MD at the end of April. One new mystery author I just met online is Cindy Callaghan, whose novel  Sydney Mackenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead, a 2017 Agatha nominee for best children’s mystery, I found very appealing for the middle grade audience.

I urge you to find time for these titles, many of which can be read in one to two days. Check out the mystery award lists for new favorites. You won’t be disappointed at the variety and the craftsmanship of the children’s mystery authors.

I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a reading and writing family. MY grandfather published two books and a play; my mother was the women’s editor and later one of the first city editors of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in the 1950’s and 1960’s; and my uncle wrote for The Stars and Stripes. Our grandsons love to read and write mysteries, too. After retiring from a school librarian position in 2007 at an elementary school where I taught Marcia Talley’s grands, this school librarian was encouraged by Kathy Harig of Mystery Loves Company Bookstore and author Marcia Talley to attend Malice Domestic!

www.BESTBOOKSBYBETH.COM for more recommendations of children’s literature






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Filed under Award winning books, Boys' books, Children, Children's Literature, Different Children, First Novels, Historial Fiction, Malice Domestic, Mystery


Google reminded me that Langston Hughes said:  “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind.” Google’s short biography on the anniversary of his birth reminds us that “[h]e hoped to inspire black writers to be objective about their race and embrace it, though felt the young writers of the Black Power movement of the 1960s were too angry.”  He was born on Feb. 1, 1902.   Not only an inspiration to African Americans, all writers and readers can reflect on his heart-felt comments.  My posts about “Characters You Want to Know: Parts 1 & 2” try to illuminate for all readers some memorable children in contemporary literature who will help us to understand humans who have foibles and troubles as we all do or “all human kind” as Hughes reminded us.

If you enjoyed the Characters You Want to Know in Part 1’s post,  here are more amazing characters which will add to your list of great books ones that teach us all empathy for children and any humans.

Another complex character I recommend is featured in What To Do About Alice?(with a long subtitle) by Barbara Kerley. (She is also the author of The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins).  We adults may remember Alice Roosevelt Longworth anecdotes from when her father was president, but this book takes a fun approach with imaginative illustrations to help us understand the point of view of a young daughter living in the White House. Some reviewers on Amazon say that this book will help to introduce a “character” children will want to read more about.  I agree especially when I read that Alice was an unhappy adult so her early life leads to her complexity.

As well as reading, I love to knit and cook.  All my hobbies require good eyesight, so I was inspired to read about the life of Laura Bridgman who held on to only two of her senses after a childhood illness.  Laura could only taste some food and could use her remarkable sense of touch after losing her sight, hearing, and sense of smell.  She could knit and tat and she learned to read and write before Helen Keller at the Perkins Institute in Boston.  What an inspirational story Sally Hobart Alexander wrote in She Touched the World: Deaf-Blind Pioneer !  This ambiguous true “character” intrigued me because she was not Helen Keller, the delightful deaf/mute writer who was loved by all who met her.  Laura was an impatient, jealous, demanding child who helped Samuel Howe become famous in the late 1880’s. I think Sally Alexander, a blind author and teacher, aptly named her book which is written for older elementary children.

How can Mia Winchell compete in school and in this character-loving post? She is the synesthetic narrator of A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Moss.  Thank you to my niece Gretchen Schmelzer for recommending this fascinating book to me.  We writers can only wish we shared Mia’s “gift,” for she can see sounds, smell colors and taste shapes.  Wouldn’t those extraordinary powers be helpful to us writers?  Since this section is about MEATY characters, I guess Mia would be uncomfortable with my language. I cannot describe the taste of this book, nor the smell of this “Meaty” child.   Mia’s “oddness” is not easy for her family to understand, but Wendy Moss shares this character’s feelings with the reader.  You will be amazed when you read about this medical condition which is rare, misunderstood, and real!

Another title with an Exceptional Setting I chose is An Unlikely Friendship by Ann Rinaldi, which takes place in the White House during the 1860’s. Ann Rinaldi’s book about this unusual attachment is a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley.  There have been many books written about these two women, but I maintain that Rinaldi gets it just right. You may have seen the movie “Lincoln,” in which Lizzie has a minor role. Read An Unlikely Friendship and you will see her character revealed in the U. S Capital during this tumultuous time.

What is the special language of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman?  The chapter titles are so intriguing!  Meg Wolitzer, the author of the adult novel The Interestings, writes for children in a language they will love. For Example, Chapter 1, “Lunch Meat and the Chinaman” and Chapter 3 “The So-Called Power is Revealed” will resonate with young readers.   Duncan Dorfman is not a typical elementary child nor are his new friends who are Scrabble geniuses at age twelve.  Her writing has been called “Juicy, perceptive and vividly written.”—

What characters have you read recently which should be shared as “Characters You Want to Know”?  The theme of empathy is one that should resonate with many readers like youHappy Reading in 2015 as you find more characters you want to know and share with others!

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Characters You Want To Know: Part 1

“Never be without a good book” is a motto revealed to me, one I adopted many years ago.  Today, I plan to surprise you with book characters, originally written for children, but these are titles I love because the characters create empathy in us.

To put my suggestions in a framework, I will go back to CAMEL. We want to read books with complex characters, don’t we? Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper stars Melody, an eleven year old girl with a photographic memory.  Choosing Melody to narrate this book takes you into her mind for she cannot talk, walk, or write.  Wait a minute, you ask, how can she have a photographic memory when she is as described on the first page? How can she communicate with us, the readers, and with her family and friends?   She has cerebral palsy, is placed in special needs class, forever in her wheelchair.  Melody is a complex “Character You Want to Know!”  I will not tell you the plot of this human story, because you will want to see how it unfolds.

Although we sometimes read predictable novels while at the beach, still, for lasting impact, I think we want ambiguity in our reading choices.  Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a book I will re-read many times.  The books I have chosen for today’s post will help us to understand children who are different from the norm. Willow Chance, the character I want you to know, is a twelve year old genius who reveres the number 7.  She has many unusual quirks and interests so she is not a “popular” child in school. Her life takes a tragic turn and other adults reach out to care for her and try to understand this beautiful child.    I hope you will take Willow into your heart as I have.  Hear about Willow from a young reader who posted a review on Amazon:

“I guess I really enjoyed this book because I am a gifted child myself. I am 9 years old and have recently skipped 2 years of primary school. I loved this book; it really made me cry…. I agree with Willow that sometimes in school it is hard to fit in….’”

One Meaty character you will want to know is Auggie Pullman.  Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which stars this main character you will want to know, has appeared on many “Best Of” lists in the past few years.  I picked it up and recommended this realistic story to many teachers and parents.  Auggie’s face is never described because, as the narrator Auggie tells us, it is indescribable.  I cannot imagine his life in middle school as others taunt and react to a new boy who has his cranial-facial differences.  Auggie Pullman will surprise you with his resilience to the bullies and those who try to ignore him.

The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech, has an Exceptional Setting and it is about a boy who does not speak. Jacob is discovered by a childless couple on their porch one day. This setting will remind you of Anne of Green Gables; it is a small farm near a simple village.  Jacob communicates best with a cow and the dog in this quiet setting, but the couple learn much from him daily. On her blog Sharon Creech says, “It was a challenge to write about a boy who does not speak, but I hope the reader learns as much about the boy through what he does and how he affects others as we might learn if he could use words.”

Language and Literary Devices wrap up my choices for you of Characters You Want to Know: Part 1.  Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is written entirely in free verse and won the Newbery Award in 1998.  It is a difficult novel for children, so I recommend that adults read this historical fiction gem first before giving it to a child.  Billie Joe is a fifteen year old who lives in the dust bowl of Oklahoma and yearns to play piano.  How can a poor farmer’s family during the Depression keep a large musical instrument such as a piano.  Hesse is remarkable when she describes the music in Billie Joe’s heart.  The lines are spare just as the land provided little, but you will love the language.

“June 1934

On the Road with Arley”

Here’s the way I figure it.

My place in the world is at the piano.”

Please read Out of the Dust yourself to get to know Billie Joe. I hope you enjoy meeting these characters who all exhibit gifts to share with readers who strive to understand human nature through empathetic literature.

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Filed under Award winning books, Children, Different Children, Historial Fiction, Realistic Fiction