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>It’s a Mystery

>Colleen Mondor wonders why there aren’t more YA mysteries. And now, so do I. After reading her post, I did a quick search of, querying for mystery and detective stories for YA (grades 7 and up)published in 2007. I got twenty hits, but most were, as Colleen suggested, for either general realistic or fantasy fiction with a mystery element rather than some kind of straight-up detective procedural. Years ago I looked at teen reading-interest surveys which consistently showed that kids named “mysteries” as their favorite genre, but their definition of such was broad–Flowers in the Attic, for example. But it seems to me there have been better eras for teen mysteries as traditionally defined: writers such as Jay Bennett, Lois Duncan and Joan Lowery Nixon used to turn them out regularly. (That was, however, back when YA was mostly thought of as junior high.) I dunno–maybe teen mystery fans are so used to crossing over to adult (the way adult fantasy fans cross over to juvenile) that they fail to constitute an imperative market? Or are the exigencies of the murder mystery, particularly, and those of teen life too incompatible to seem credible? Great, now I’m picturing Encyclopedia Brown chasing Hannibal Lecter . . . .

Are you out there, Nancy Werlin? What do you think?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I just had this conversation with a graduate student who was thinking about writing YA detective stories as a creative thesis project. I’m glad to see that I’m in good company in not being able to come up with lots of examples. (I was trying and failing to come up with Joan Lowery Nixon’s name, so thanks.) Lots of series books for younger readers become mysteries (from Boxcar Children books to American Girl book-lets). And there are mystery elements in lots of fiction that is not detective fiction or murder mystery (so King Dork and Harry Potter have something in common!) but almost all I could find on my shelves was a Van Draanen “Sammy Keyes” mystery and a “Lulu Dark” I haven’t read but acquired at a Center for Children’s Books sale. Then it was back to Nancy Drew and the gang.

  2. Grounded Girl says:

    >I used to teach third grade and more recently led a book club for kids. I had the same issue. I (and my kids) wanted GOOD mysteries that had some bite to them. Hannah West isn’t bad, but where are the Hardy Boys of today?

  3. >I think that mysteries are a relatively simple genre and that teenagers who like mysteries are reading the same ones adults read. When I was in my teens I loved Aatha Christie. Mysteries are usually very engaging and often well-written but not overly challenging as literature, just good genre fiction. I expect too that these appeal mainly to girls. Boys in their teens, judging from the daily examples I see in a boys’ high school, turn to Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Ian Fleming, and the like. In either case, the “adult” genre fiction serves both teens and adults — so that there’s less need for specifically YA books than in realistic fiction. But — there’s been a recent explosion of some kinds of adventure novels that appeal to teens of both genders. I’m thinking of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, Robert Muchamore’s and James Patterson’s YA series, to name some highlights. This is a great trend in YA lit, I think. (Oh! And then there’s the Stephenie Meyer and those kinds of books too, hits with both genders of teens Also genre fiction, and often very very good at it.) The future looks bright in these areas.

  4. Suzanne says:

    >Great, now I’m picturing Encyclopedia Brown chasing Hannibal Lecter . . . .

    I want to read that!

  5. >Historical mysteries seem to be popular, but nothing of the Nancy Drew type.

  6. Nancy Werlin says:

    >Hi, there. This is Nancy Werlin. (Many smoke signals were sent to fetch me.)

    Let me first say I’m no expert; my “mysteries” are suspense thrillers, not “detectives.” I think several things are already mentioned are true:

    1) Teen mystery readers can and will read adult. The same dynamic is at work here as in sf, however. It used to be said that there was no room for fantasy/science/speculative fiction in YA because those readers read from the adult shelves. However, of late years, I think it’s been proven that if you write/publish it in sf, they will come. Maybe it could be the same for mysteries.

    2) It’s tricky to write a credible, realistic teen detective. Most adult detectives have JOBS with the police, as a PI, as a bounty hunter, whatever. Even if you manage a one-off mystery (and these are what you will mostly find on the excellent YA Edgars short-list each year), how do you have your teen return in the next book? Apprentice her in a morgue (it’s been done)? My own mind just can’t wrap around this problem. How many murderous cousins can David Yaffe have? Is Frances Leventhal really likely to encounter yet another crime ring? (Examples from my mysteries).

    We do often have YA writers who write the occasional mystery, among their other books. But since you can’t point to their names as being specifically mystery writers, these books aren’t labeled as mysteries. Again, check the Edgar lists. They manage to find at least five each year of high quality.

    3) Murder. Roger, you touch on this here: “Or are the exigencies of the murder mystery, particularly, and those of teen life too incompatible to seem credible?”

    True mysteries are inextricably linked with murder and well, evil. The very best writers of mysteries never stint on the gravity of the crime. It’s not just for thrills; it’s about morality and ethics, at base. You cannot take it lightly. It’s not just entertainment (see my Horn Book essay that refers to this; I believe it’s on the HB web site somewhere). I believe this does indeed create a disjunction that is difficult to manage when writing for contemporary teens. I don’t have the time now to explore this fully, but this relates to the fact that the mysteries of Lois Duncan and Joan Lowery Nixon now read “young.” You can have light, fun mysteries for younger kids; I don’t think you really can for teenagers. I don’t think it’s responsible to write lightly about serious crime in our contemporary world. It would be like writing a comedy about vicious bullying. I wish I had time to explore this fully — not sure I’m making myself clear. But you’d have to go cartoon (like Lulu Dark) to write “light” mysteries for teens.

    That said, Robert B. Parker is writing the occasional YA now. I haven’t read his yet — are they “light”?

  7. Anonymous says:

    >Nancy, I think you just pitched Roger an article. Eh, RS? What do you think?

  8. Anonymous says:

    >I think there are several great detective mystery series–Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer, Echo Falls by Peter Abrahams, Sammy Keyes by Wendelin Van Draanen–but these all play to younger teens, the junior high crowd.


  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Anytime, Nancy. And Jonathan’s comment makes me think that with the importance of the crossover market for the older-teen books, mysteries for that age might be tough to publish–it’s one thing to pull in adult readers who like coming-of-age novels but I don’t think adult mystery fans will feel the necessity of crossing over, given that the adult mystery field is already so rich.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Rob Thomas originally intended Veronica Mars to be a YA novel (series?) Sigh.

  11. Andrew Karre says:

    >Great conversation and thank you Nancy Werlin for adding your voice.

    From an acquiring editor’s perspective, I don’t look for teen mysteries (and I don’t read them in any form for pleasure), but I do find myself regularly falling in love with teen novels that happen to have the rough contours of mystery fiction wedded to teen voice and a coming-of-age story. It can work. At some point, Viking is going to publish a novel by an author named John C. Ford–it was called THE MORGUE AND ME when I was considering the ms–that combines a great noir-ish amateur sleuth mystery with an older YA very effectively. I still wish I could have won that book. And if the teen-populated murder-mystery movie BRICK had been a YA novel mansucript, I would have given anything to publish it.

    When/if I manage to acquire such a book for our list, though, I honestly don’t think I’d push for any emphasis on the mystery in the way we package and present the book. (Compare cover design and other packaging values in the mystery and the YA sections and you will find very little in common.) The crossover potential to adult mystery readers is a mirage in practice, and since I see YA as a genre itself, I don’t really see any benefit in putting too fine a point on the presentation by packaging it explicitly as a “teen mystery.”

    For the older teen market, readers are making a genre choice in the very act of shopping in the YA section. I don’t see any value in further categorization.

  12. Maggie Stiefvater says:

    >I have to say that I agree whole-heartedly with Nancy. As a YA contemporary fantasy author, I find it challenging enough to create realistic, fantastical situations where teens are the ones propelling most of the action. At least in fantasy, we authors can skirt around the subject with hidden worlds and limited knowledge on the part of any adults in the novel.

    But once you get into a mystery, marvelous all-knowing and all-prying adults called cops tend to step in, and unlike in an adult mystery, when an adult protagonist outside of law enforcement can work on the edges without drawing too much attention, a teen doing the same thing immediately demands more explanation/ plot space.

    Novels like the Nancy Drew series do read young to me and I can’t imagine them on today’s upper YA shelves. They have a sheen of unreality to them, a separation between reader and character that is — I think — strictly taboo in YA, because all I can think while reading them is how unlikely it is for Nancy to keep finding herself in these situations and adults to be so helpless and nonparticipatory.

    I think there’s room for YA mystery, but I also think it’s bound to be one-off rather than series. A teen called to solve a mystery of a lifetime rather than called to a lifetime of solving mysteries.

  13. Colleen says:

    >Thanks so much for picking up this discussion Roger!

    The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer is one I have come back to as being close to what I think is missing in YA. The violence is realistic and intense – in the latest mystery someone is committed to an insane asylum against his will and a crazed killer is uncovered. There’s also quite a bit about poverty and lack of individual freedom in these books – they actually could skew older but the protagonist is just a wee bit young for that.

    I see the point Nancy is making about how to explain a teenager being involved in mysteries but in Siobhan Dowd’s London Eye Mystery a teen goes missing and his cousins are the ones to puzzle out what happens. In Curtis Parkinson’s Death in Kingsport a teen at a funeral thinks he hears his dead uncle moving in the casket before it is cremated – and that sets the mystery (and uncovering of other bodies) in motion.

    I’m not sure if you can write a sustainable series this way (although we do have some books out there with characters who assist their parents) but you can write at least one or two.

    Or you can go the Joss Whedon route of having the adults complicit in the crimes and teens uncovering them – he had no trouble crafting years worth of mysteries for Buffy and crew (of course that introduces fantasy/horror to the mix, but still…it can be done).

    I’m not even looking for books in a series though, I just don’t see many (or any) single mysteries for older teens and I find that bizarre. There is enough crime in high schools alone now to sustain at least a single storyline. As I mentioned in my original post, the possibilities are endless and I can’t help but think they aren’t being published simply because it is easier to say that teens will read adult mysteries.

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >Colleen now has me wondering about the sustainability of stand-alone mysteries, for children, YAs or adults. One thing I love about the ones I love (faves being Donna Leon and Denise Mina) is watching the characters develop within the crime-solving formula. While, as Nancy says, suspense fiction doesn’t require series-ibility, the crime-solving subgenre does seem to demand it. I wonder why. Anyone remember their John Cawelti?

  15. Nancy Werlin says:

    >>>I just don’t see many (or any) single mysteries for older teens and I find that bizarre. < < Again, I point you to the annual Edgar award nominee list in the YA category (they have a juvenile category also). The Edgar judges always manage to find at least five — and usually, yes, they are singles.

  16. >Yep, Nancy I’ve seen the Edgar list and having read some of those titles sent my way for review – I’m not always so impressed.

    The nomination pool for that category has got to be so tiny as really, there just aren’t that many titles available.

    In my post I mention Jenny Davidson’s upcoming alt history The Explosionist. It’s an outstanding murder mystery with a ton of political intrigue and the teens are completely believable protagonists – I’m sure something like it in our world (without the alt hist twist) would be possible. It just seems to me that straight up mysteries are not something that is pushed these days – there always has to be a fantasy/thriller/supernatural twist.

    I guess because a dead body just isn’t enough excitement?? ha!

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think, too, that the YA Edgars define “mystery” more loosely than I would, perhaps because of the relative paucity of detective stories for this age group.

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    >P.S. Colleen has posted some possible scenarios for YA mystery series over at her blog I thought I had figured out link-within-comments but I apparently haven’t.

  19. Nancy Werlin says:


    If you want a writer to long to kneecap you, try saying, “Here are some fabulous ideas! I just dreamed ’em up, and now I’ve done the hard part (although it was easy for me!), you just go and write ’em. The money and acclaim will roll in, guaranteed. Oh, no, no — no need to thank me!”

    I’m just saying. 🙂

    Nancy W.

  20. Andrew Karre says:

    >”Here are some fabulous ideas! I just dreamed ’em up, and now I’ve done the hard part (although it was easy for me!), you just go and write ’em. The money and acclaim will roll in, guaranteed. Oh, no, no — no need to thank me!”

    Isn’t that a fair approxiamtion of what Edward Stratemeyer probably said to dozens of writers of children’s mysteries? I’m not sure about his kneecaps. . . .

  21. Nancy Werlin says:

    >Well, I loved Nancy Drew as a kid. But we all have to agree: they qualify as younger-kid reading, not the meaty, serious, contemporary older-teen mysteries we’re talking about here – the kid of books that could stand toe-to-toe with adult mysteries.

  22. Roger Sutton says:

    >C’mon, Nancy: Colleen isn’t trying to think up stories for people, she’s demonstrating some examples of how a YA detective series might work.

    I seem to be remembering a (short-lived?) series from (I think) Arte Publico about a group of gay teens ‘n allies solving mysteries, fwiw.

  23. Anonymous says:

    >Yes to the loose definition of the word “mystery” for the Edgars committee: HOLES, MONSTER, SPEAK? I don’t think so!


  24. >Is that what Colleen is doing? Because on her blog, it seems like she is saying she is too busy to write these herself, so have at it, other authors. Am I misreading, Colleen?

    Which brings up the question that maybe the kind of writers who are drawn to write YA simply aren’t interested in writing the type of mystery being discussed.

  25. Michele Regenold says:

    >I ran into the same problem as Roger last spring when I wrote my critical thesis on literary detective fiction (Vermont College MFA program in children’s writing). I ended up analyzing Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series, Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series, and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy.

    Of the current teen detective series I did find, they tended toward comedy or just didn’t grab me enough to analyze them to death for a thesis.

    So naturally I’ve written my own realistic teen detective novel. Time will tell if it finds a home.

  26. Colleen says:

    >Oh holy crap people. I’m a writer, I know it isn’t as easy as just throwing out plots and saying “go do it”. And the only reason I mentioned I was doing other projects was because I wanted to cut off the “why don’t you write these yourself” comments.

    My point was to show that there are possibilities that do exist where teenagers could feasibly be the protagonists in a mystery series. This was an issue (and as I said in my post a reasonable issue)that came up in the comments here. I wanted to show some ways around it, that’s all.

    The Stratmeyer Syndicate? I mean really – me giving some informal ideas where a teen could solve crimes is the same as telling writers what every step of the plot must be for each book?

    Throttle back folks. You’re making assumptions about my thoughts here that could not be further from the truth.

    I just want to see more mysteries for the YA audience, that’s all.

  27. Anonymous says:

    >Huh. Knee capping looks like a better idea all the time.

  28. Nancy Werlin says:

    >Oh, dear. Let us all take some deep breaths. Nobody’s knees or other body parts will get hurt here.

    We can see now why I don’t blog. I never mean to start trouble; I just get impish online. (Or maybe it’s just the Horn Book that brings a gremlin out in me — Jennifer Armstrong and I got into it here at length some time ago.) We are all having a reasonable and, I hope, humorous discussion.

    I’ll add this into the mix: Penguin has been trying hard for a few years (since 2003, I think) with its Sleuth imprint to fill this perceived hole in the market for YA mysteries. But I have an impression (don’t quote me; I have no access to actual sales figures) that their experience so far indicates that in fact, the buyers who supposedly really wanted these books are not buying. You can build it, but what if they don’t come? Or don’t come NOW?

    Trends come and go. As Roger pointed out, mysteries were huge in the day of Lois Duncan and Joan Lowery Nixon. Now you can’t find many. Not all that long ago, you couldn’t interest any editor in children’s/YA (apart from the legendary Jean Karl) in fantasy; they all shrugged and said nobody bought fantasy (and at that time, they were right).

    But as someone else here indicated, it’s not only about what the market (editors, bookstores) is and isn’t interested in; it’s also about what writers are interested in writing. Maybe what’s needed is one writer who can do a plausible, good series, to show the way.

    It might be that this discussion, which has scared up at least a couple of writers who are working on mysteries, is an advance warning of that sea change.

    It won’t be me. A confession: my new book (out in September) is a contemporary romantic fantasy thriller. A melange of YA genre-crossovers, but no mystery or detection in it whatsoever.

    Nancy W.

  29. >I think YA mystery is currently short on buyers more than on readers. Plenty of boys in my classroom would love it, but they’re reluctant readers, not book-buyers themselves; and the most typical English teacher or librarian is not an avid mystery reader herself and won’t know to look for them. My guess is that we need one big blockbuster, a Harry Potter or Captain Underpants — or Nancy Drew — to give us the hang of it.

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