Our Tuesday “Case Files from our Detectives” feature is currently spotlighting Crime Scenes, a.k.a. Settings. What goes into choosing and researching settings? How can mysteries grow out of their settings? How do we bring places or time periods to life on the page, finding the right details? Two weeks ago Diana Renn described how a novel was born from an unexpected challenge she faced while traveling in Japan. PRETTY CROOKED author Elisa Ludwig showed howshe created the setting for her mystery entirely from research. Today, Kristen Kittscher explores settings in middle-grade mysteries.
Here’s a riddle for you. What do Shawn Thomas Odyssey’s THE WIZARD OF DARK STREET, Trenton Lee Stewart’s MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY, Elise Broach’s MASTERPIECE, Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOUR REACH ME, Matthew Kirby’s ICEFALL and Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes mysteries all have in common?
The books are disparate enough that it might be hard to notice any shared traits — other than that they are all, to one extent or another — middle-grade mysteries that were published within the last five years. If you look again, though, you’ll realize that not one of these books is set in a realistic contemporary setting. Broach’s MASTERPIECE, while set in modern day New York, involves talking insects. Stead takes us back to 1970s Manhattan, Springer plants us in Victorian England, and Odyssey creates a magical world. ICEFALL recreates a fantastical ancient Norway and Trenton Lee Stewart creates the fictional Stonetown Harbor and Nomansen Island as the backdrop for his intrepid gang’s adventures.
In fact, I’d go out on a limb and that it’s much more common for middle-grade mysteries to be set in unusual, fantastic, or historical settings than in modern towns. YA mysteries, on the other hand, seem much more rooted in contemporary settings. Why is that?
Part of it may be simply that middle-graders have much greater thirst for adventure and fantastical, over-the-top worlds. However, as someone who set my own mystery in a slightly off-kilter, surreal version of a contemporary suburb, I have an inkling there’s more to it: one of the greatest challenges of writing middle-grade mysteries is keeping stakes high while still creating conditions in which the kids solve the crime on their own. The moment things get too dangerous is the same moment our readers could say, “Hey, why isn’t the FBI all over this?” There are ways around this in contemporary mysteries, of course, but many of them involve peopling a story with bumbling law enforcement and clueless or absent parents.
Skewing reality a bit or setting the story in the past lifts that obstacle and helps readers suspend disbelief that much more easily. Sure, in real life it might be wiser to call your parents on your cell rather than foil an evil man set on destroying the world, but on surreal Nomansan Island in Stewart’s MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY, that’s not an option. Similarly, life in the 1970s Upper West Side of Manhattan (WHEN YOU REACH ME) affords kids much more investigative freedom than life in Manhattan would today. (Although: Kirsten Miller wisely gets around this in KIKI STRIKE: INSIDE THE SHADOW CITY by setting Ananka Fishbein’s story in the literal underworld of New York, amidst rat-filled tunnels where it feels like anything can happen.)
What do you think? Have I cherry-picked my examples, or are middle-grade mysteries indeed more often set in fantastical or historical worlds? And, if so, do you think it has anything to do with helping along our willing suspension of disbelief?
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.