Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crime in the Middle

Today we're continuing with our topic of CRIME in middle grade and YA fiction.

In my last “Case File from Our Detectives,” I floated the theory that so many mysteries for middle graders are set in the past or in fantastical worlds because sometimes it can be very difficult to create high stakes in contemporary real-world settings. In a surreal setting like, say, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY, readers will easily accept that kids are responsible for saving the world from evil. A real world setting, in contrast, immediately raises questions about why adult authorities are so inept.

Crime and middle grade mystery are indeed a difficult mix. Scan your daily paper or online crime blotters you’ll discover that most real crimes involve a good deal of violence, sex – or, sadly, both. The crimes that aren’t grisly or sordid tend to be utterly irrelevant to middle schoolers’ lives. Tax fraud? Not exactly fascinating to sixth graders – or, for that matter, adults.

So what’s a middle grade mystery author to do, if she or he wants to keep it contemporary and incorporate crime at the heart of the mystery? Here are some of the approaches I’ve noticed:

-- Make the stakes feel high to the main character, regardless of the crime’s magnitude

Getting to the bottom of who stole a trophy doesn’t seem like a high stakes endeavor. But Ben H. Winters makes it one in THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING EVERYTHING. It just so happens that the stolen trophy in question is the only one ever won in Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School’s history – and the principal has cancelled all fun until the trophy is back. Young Bethesda Fielding must get to the bottom of it all if school life isn’t going to be miserable. The stakes might feel low to adults, but it’s certainly not for the students at Mary Todd Lincoln.

-- Spotlight the effect of the investigations on the characters rather than the nature of the crime.

Both my mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW and its sequel, THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE, which I’m working on now, have very dangerous potential villains and the crimes are high stakes. To keep things from getting too crazy, I keep those possible crimes firmly off-screen/in the backstory. My focus is on the investigations (or, in the case of WIG, the cat-and-mouse game with the potentially dangerous school counselor) and how they affect Young & Yang’s friendship. For me, mysteries are a wonderful way of exploring the self-doubt and friendship tensions that middle schoolers deal with so regularly. While the dangerous potential back story fuels the plot, my young sleuths' relationship is at the forefront.

--Choose a high-stakes crime that doesn’t involve violence

A straightforward route. Art theft or fraud is a non-violent yet exciting choice. Elise Broach created a lovely, elaborate mystery around this in  MASTERPIECE. And who can forget Michelangelo at the heart of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?  Crimes against the environment or involving animals also resonate with middle schoolers without involving violence. Carl Hiassen’s books for middle graders are wonderful examples of very thrilling, high stakes stories about issues that kids care about. Chris Grabenstein’s latest, Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers, also pulls this off well. He focuses on a gambling bank manager who frames the main character’s mom as well as a dog-knapping and puppy mill ring. While the gambling bank manager isn’t interesting to kids per se, it sure becomes so when our protagonist’s mom is involved.

These are just a few observations, of course. Can you think of other approaches middle grade authors take when incorporating crime into their mysteries?

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 hard at work on the sequel to wig, THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE, you’ll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled pets. 


  1. What I love most about mysteries is seeing how the sleuth figures it out. Whatever "it" is never matters. But I have never tried to write it-yet. Nice post, Kristen.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! Great point: no matter the "crime," it does come down to the sleuth's cleverness, doesn't it?


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