Years 8 to 12 are golden. These are the elementary years of yore when homework is fun (mostly) and days follow each other in mellow continuity. Hormones lie dormant. Friends come over to play in the backyard until mom calls you for dinner.
This is the era I discovered series books. I loved the feel of a book in my hands and a story in my head. Because it was all still new to me, reading books with actual plots and few pictures to guide me, I gravitated toward series. I could get good and comfortable with the characters and they with me. Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, – I loved them all.
They managed to get themselves into serious trouble and then out again… like Scooby Doo detectives in book form. If you’re the parent of a middle grader, chances are you’re witnessing this transition too, from kid to… bigger kid. To help the process along, here are eight excellent modern mystery series that will appeal to your burgeoning detective.
Independence Hall (I, Q Series)
by Roland Smith
I purchased these as a Christmas set for my nephew, a history, mystery, politics lover. He had conquered Lemony Snicket and wanted more. This first book in the series follows Q and Angela on a hunt for Angela’s real mother, a retired Secret Service agent, in Philadelphia. It’s full of both history and action. There are now six books in the series, enough to get, and keep, you hooked.
Chasing Vermeer (Chasing Vermeer Series)
by Blue Balliet with illustrations by Brett Helquist
This one’s for the art lover. The first in a series of four, Chasing Vermeer follows Petra and Calder as they hunt for a missing Vermeer painting. It’s a scandal of the biggest sort and it also teaches kids a little about the art world. The rest in the series pull in architecture and sculpture. If you need further incentive, the illustrator is the infamous artist for the Lemony Snicket books.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (Alcatraz Series)
by Gennifer Choldenko
Moose Flanagan lives on Alcatraz because his mom said he had to. His dad’s the prison electrician. It’s 1935, and Al Capone starts leaving him notes. It’s weird, mysterious, and touching as the entire reason the family lives there is to be close to San Francisco so Moose’s sister can get services for her autism. I don’t know how Choldenko manages to make all these subjects funny, but she does. The rest of the trilogy, Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework, follow suit.
Three Times Lucky (Tupelo Landing Series)
by Sheila Turnage
If you want one set in the South, meet Miss Moses LoBeau. She’s from Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, the classic small town with rumors and secrets to unearth. Mo is a fiercely tough orphan who will protect her adoptive parents at all costs, even when they are questioned for murder. Her best friend’s name? Dale Earnhardt Johnson III. Need I say more? Mo is a funnier Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and this book brought in all the awards as a New York Times bestseller, Newbery honor winner, and E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor book.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Series)
by Chris Grabenstein
Confession? I put this one my “to read” list before I shared it with my kids. This is for the gamers out there (board, word, and digital). Kyle Keeley is a gamer obsessed with Luigi Lemoncello the best game designer in the world. He wins the golden ticket to play the ultimate version of “The Great Escape”, locked with 12 other kids in a library until they solve all the puzzles. This is a lovely and geekier version of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory and reminded me a little of the old videogame, 7th Guest. It was also a New York Times bestseller.
Murder Most Unladylike (Murder Most Unladylike Series)
by Robin Stevens
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are really bored at their all-girls school in 1934. So, they decide to become detectives, but there’s nothing to detect. Until they find their science teacher dead in the gym only to have the body disappear minutes later. Their tasks are twofold: prove a murder happened and then find the killer. I love this one for its girl power and the creepy setting of the all-girls school in the 30s.
Space Case (Moon Base Alpha Series)
by Stuart Gibbs
Here’s one set in space – on the moon to be exact. But according to Dashiell Gibson, the moon is boring. Which makes sense if you are never allowed to play outside. I don’t know how the space parents do it. It gets exciting pretty quickly, though, when the top scientist winds up dead and Dash has to solve the mystery. This book is both funny and suspenseful and will make you wish we could direct more funds to NASA.
Who Could That Be at This Hour? (All the Wrong Questions Series)
by Lemony Snicket
You know I couldn’t do a middle grade mystery list without Lemony Snicket. This is kid Snicket, before he becomes the famous author and leader of a secret organization. This is apprentice Snicket as he learns the ropes. This is his origin story… where all the unfortunate events began.
If your kids are just delving in to the longer reads and fancy themselves problem-solvers (or creators), these series will get them hooked and keep them building vocabulary, curiosity, and reading stamina at an age when life is full of long afternoons to fill.