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4 first-rate mystery stories for middle-grade readers

These four female sleuths solve crimes and keep the pages turning briskly, carrying on a literary tradition that would make Nancy Drew proud. 

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    The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
    By Janet Fox
    Viking
    400 pp.
    Recommended for ages 10-12
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When I was a young reader, my book collection consisted of every single Nancy Drew mystery and a small shelf of the award-winning titles my grandmother gifted me. She taught fourth grade and considered it her mission to upgrade my reading tastes.

As much as I loved Nancy, her zippy roadster, and boyfriend Ned Nickerson, I’m happy to report that today’s fourth graders have many more choices. Four clever girl sleuths have recently appeared on the book scene. The settings are each different, but all the girls’ voices are smart and independent, and each book is a page-turning adventure, perfect for young readers.

THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by Janet Fox (Viking, 400 pp., recommended for ages 10-12)  

Recommended: The 100 best books of all time

Nazi spies, an Enigma machine, a dark castle,  a story that’s equal parts creepy and charming – how could you resist? When Kat Bateson and her siblings escape the London blitz to attend what their parents tell them is a boarding school, Kat refuses to believe the mysterious goings-on at the Scottish castle could possibly be sinister. Surely there’s a sensible explanation for their oddly behaving teacher, the cook, and even headmistress-turned-castle-guard Lady Eleanor. Chapters flash back in time to possible origins of the unexplained happenings, and Kat’s calm voice of reason tries to make sense of the magic. But the story really heats up as her friends disappear, one by one. Young Kat is the kind of strong, brave, yet vulnerable heroine both girls and boys will cheer for.

AUDACITY JONES TO THE RESCUE by Kirby Larson (Scholastic, 224 pp., recommended for ages 8-12)

Another story that revolves around true historical events – not to mention dastardly deeds – this caper features an orphan, a cat, and no less than President William Howard Taft. Our heroine Audie, a problem solver and a risk taker, leads readers on twists and turns, landing eventually at the scene of the crime, the White House in Washington DC. You’ll love Newbery Honor author Larson’s clever plays on words, which has a cat stalking birds in one sentence while a mysterious man pussyfoots around in the next. This is a novel that begs to be read aloud or smiled about with a good friend.

 ISABEL FEENEY, STAR REPORTER by Beth Fantaskey (HMH Books for Young Readers, 352 pp., recommended for ages 10-12)

Take another step back in history to the 1920s with this story that draws its inspiration from five real-life crime reporters for the Chicago Tribune. Young Isabel, one of the few newsgirls selling papers on the street, witnesses a mobster’s murder. She then proceeds, Nancy-Drew fashion, to solve the crime. With the help of her idol, a famous female reporter, Isabel collects clues and even visits the accused “murderess” in jail. Yes, she’s only 10 years old, but times were different. Go ahead, suspend disbelief for this one and enjoy the ride.

THE MAYPOP KIDNAPPING by  C.M. Surrisi (Carolrhoda Books, 304 pp., recommended for ages 10-12)

Modern girls are no slouches when it comes to sleuthing, and the vacation community of Maiden Rock, Maine, is a perfect spot for a mysterious kidnapping to play out. Quinnie Boyd’s mom is town realtor, mayor, postmaster, and sheriff. When Quinnie’s beloved teacher, Ms. Stillford, misses the first day of school, her mom assures her that her teacher has not been kidnapped – she’s probably just enjoying a day away, on her own. But young Quinnie’s on the case, assisted by a most unlikely new friend. Or is she really a friend? An innocent boyfriend moment or two and so many great details – from lobster fries to Ouija boards and sinister visitors – make this mystery perfect for the middle-grade crowd.

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