YA Mysteries: Back to Basics

sherlock-holmesOne of my favorite adventures each month is picking out one or two books for an eighth-grade friend of mine. She’s tall, moderately athletic, helps with the family business when she’s not studying, and would rather read a book than almost anything else.

For me, the adventure of giving a book to an eighth grader is the surprise factor: Not only is it likely that she hasn’t yet read the book — she may even never have heard of the author. I enjoy seeing both curiosity and speculation in her face as she examines the front cover, then deftly turns to the back of a softcover, or the folded-in part of a hardcover jacket that summarizes the plot. She’s likely to examine anything mentioned about the author, too.

I’ve handed her a lot of YA mysteries in the past two years of “junior high.” Not only can I usually find “emotional appropriateness” in a YA book — one that’s targeted for young adults — but it’s also a great way to confirm for her a sense of separateness from her younger siblings, who are still working their way from text-heavy picturebooks to basic “chapter books.” My YA friend isn’t scared of a thick volume if it looks good!

The next book I plan to give to her, though, is a classic: a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. What I like about the Baker Street detection tales for a YA reader are these facets: (1) The “evil” in the plot is clearly assigned to people other than Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson. (2) Even when Watson doesn’t quite “get it” as Holmes chases down a criminal, he is appreciated by the master sleuth for his friendship and loyalty, which doesn’t waver (at least, not in the original series). (3) Untangling the crime is portrayed as workable, logical, and a triumph of both thinking and research. (Plus it doesn’t hurt that “science” comes into many of the stories.) (4) There’s no sexual abuse — OK, that’s me, the widely reading mystery fan talking, but between all the TV series and the latest edgy adult books and (gulp) the local news, I’m getting more exposure to that side of life than I want, and it’s good to share a story with my friend that doesn’t make me cringe. And (5) I know these stories — so we can, if she wants, enjoy exclaiming over them, and saying to each other, “Remember this good part?”

Most of all, I think Sherlock Holmes is the unspoken hero behind many an effort at crimesolving, for reader or writer or even future professional. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle convinced us now-adult readers that detective skills were learnable, accessible, and exciting.

And that convinces me that reading Sherlock Holmes can be an excellent prequel to the other YA mysteries I’d like to share with my friend over the next couple of years. Because I know there’s a time limit to all of this: Today’s Common Core Standards remind us that by the senior year of high school, young readers should be handling adult-level fiction with its multiple levels, its complex morality, its intense ties with history, politics, and choices.

YA is a good area in which to linger for a while, before life gets quite that challenging.

But that doesn’t mean YA can’t be serious: In the next post, I’ll bring up THE GUILTY ONE by Lisa Ballantyne, to look at how a thoroughly modern (and brand new) YA mystery builds on the foundation of what seasoned mystery readers have long been valuing. The book will be released on March 19; you might just have enough time to read it before the conversation.

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About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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5 Responses to YA Mysteries: Back to Basics

  1. Nancy Gardner says:

    Interesting, Beth. I’ll keep this in mind when talking about books with my granddaughters. Also, this weekend someone recommended a YA book called Wonder Struck. Have you heard of it?

  2. Hi Nancy – Thanks for your comment! Yes, Wonderstruck is by Brian Selznick, known for his earlier book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s huge — 608 pages — and complex and lush. There is a mystery within it, for sure. You might want to “pre-read” it so you can decide which granddaughter will enjoy it more (or whether you’ll want to hold onto it for yourself, one of the common reactions to YA books when purchased by loving adults … smile).

  3. I was about that age when I discovered Sherlock Holmes. I left my YA reading behind me (or what passed for YA reading in the early 70s) pretty fast. Within a year I was enjoying Dorothy Sayers and Ruth Rendell. I think my favorite YA mystery of my era was “Mystery of the Crimson Ghost” by Phyllis A. Whitney. I can remember my brother and I reading it out loud to each other at night and really getting scared. Thanks for all the food for thought!

  4. What a great tale, Maureen — I can picture you and your brother doing this! Have you had a chance to read any of the newer YA mysteries lately?

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