Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Investigating Middle-Grade Sleuths

Last week as part of our continuing our month-long "Young Sleuths" theme, ElisaLudwig placed a help wanted ad describing her ideal YA sleuth. Lower the 14 – 18 age range a bit, and her requirements would hold just as well for the perfect middle-grade sleuth.

Of course, it’d help us middle-grade mystery writers tremendously if we included a few desirable traits for our ideal young sleuths’ parents. Dead, missing, clueless, or work-obsessed would be preferable. If not, a predilection for taking sudden, long trips would do nicely – especially if said parents also despise cell phones. How about a lawyer or detective who nevertheless consults with his child like a brilliant equal, à la Nancy’s father, Carson Drew? Yes, please!

Since requesting deceased parents in our “help wanted” might violate some discrimination laws, I’ll think I’ll steer clear. Instead, I’d like to train my magnifying glass on a few of my favorite sleuth traits and great characters who possess them.

Audacity. I love this trait most when a young sleuth discovers her own boldness as her curiosity deepens and the stakes are raised. Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes (The Case of the Missing Marquess and several more) is a wonderful example. Uncertain and a touch self-pitying at first, Enola’s soon running away with money and supplies shrewdly stuffed into her Victorian bustle and marching into Scotland Yard undetected right when the authorities are on her tail.

Intelligence. Admittedly, every middle-grade sleuth is endowed with exceptional smarts – so I’ll go with a classic favorite here: The Westing Game’s feisty, shin-kicking Turtle Wexler has plenty of audacity, but her powers of logic and observation are also top notch! How else could she sift through 16 possible suspects and crack an exceptionally difficult code?

Imagination. I like my middle-grade sleuths to have overactive imaginations that lend themselves to wild speculation, even if that means they’re frequently misled. Stories are no fun without crazy hunches to propel the mystery. Ben H. Winter’s hilarious seventh grade heroine Bethesda Fielding provides a perfect case study in wild speculation in The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, when she doggedly seeks to prove her inkling that Ms. Finkleman is not the boring music teacher she seems to be. 

Curiosity. How can I avoid bringing up Louise Fitzhugh’s classic kid spy, Harriet? She doesn’t want to get to the bottom of a mere mystery. She’s more interested in uncovering the secrets of human nature, whether she realizes it or not. Now that’s some ambition and curiosity. 

Sense of humor. Mysterious super spy Kiki Strike (Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City) zips around town on her Vespa, has an extensive knowledge of poisons and weaponry, and happens to be a martial arts master to boot. But even though she’s about as audacious and savvy as sleuths come, it’s her wry sense of humor and one-liners I appreciate most.

It’s no surprise that in these great books, each of the sleuths is graced with all of these traits to some degree. What about you? What traits do your favorite sleuths exemplify?
Kristen Kittscher’s debut middle grade mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children’s) will be released in  2013. It follows the comic misadventures of two tween sleuths who suspect their school counselor is a dangerous fugitive — and just might be right! A former middle school English teacher, Kristen lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, Kai. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled pets.


  1. Outstanding post...and now have a few more books for the TBR. Thanks! Looking forward to WIG IN THE WINDOW!

  2. Oh, it makes me happy to hear these tween sleuths' adventures are joining your TBR list, Deb. Glad it was a help. (And thanks for the kind words!)

  3. Flattered you stopped by, Ben! I originally had Bethesda in my "sense of humor" category...but none of the other sleuths were as prone to wild speculation:-)

  4. Great list, Kristen! I'd add "resourcefulness," but after "humor" and "wild speculation," that just sounds boring! Not everyone solves mysteries through systematic deductive reasoning or cool calcualtion, so I love seeing these other attributes.


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