Enjoy teaching mystery novels to your intermediate grade students! Mysteries involve many characters and complex plots. Therefore, kids must pay attention to detail, make connections, and infer. These intricate books boost kids’ critical thinking and close reading skills. What are you waiting for? Grab a great mystery and get started.
Choosing Mystery Novels
Okay, so what constitutes a great mystery novel? When you select a mystery for your class, consider these criteria:
Clues logically lead to the solution.
True whodunits establish a clear path from the mystery to its resolution. That path may be obscured by red herrings. However, at the end of the book, the reader should see the connections.
Suspects have motive and opportunity.
Novels like Chasing Vermeer engage the audience, but motive, opportunity, and/or evidence don’t lead to the culprit. Steer away from books that aren’t true mysteries.
Red herrings throw sleuths (and readers) off track.
To build critical thinking, mysteries need ambiguity. Enter the red herring. For a great mystery novel, pick something that misleads your readers and makes them think.
Book provides just enough challenge for reader.
When choosing a mystery novel, remember that Lexile and grade level designations can be misleading. In my experience, it’s better to select something at a little lower level. Mysteries, by nature, are complex. That adds to a book’s difficulty.
If you’re looking for something tried and true, check out these two books.
The Westing Game
For my advanced fourth graders, I’ve chosen The Westing Game. Don’t be fooled by its Lexile level (750L). Not only is it complicated, it challenges kids’ reading and thinking skills. Most of my students would not understand it without guidance. Consequently, it’s the perfect book for teaching. It pushes my readers to the next level.
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, received the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1979. I recommend it for advanced fourth and fifth grade readers, as well as average to high middle school students.
The story opens as Barney Northrup invites six specially chosen tenants to move to Sunset Towers, an exclusive apartment building on the lakeshore. Soon, these tenants learn that they are heirs to Sam Westing, the elusive owner of Westing Paper Products Corporation. Each pair of heirs receives $10,000 and a set of clues. They have now become pawns in the Westing game.
The author, Ellen Raskin, crafted an elaborate scheme. To see copies of her notes, click here.
The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues)
The Westing Game is too hard for average readers in my class. Therefore, I selected a similar (but easier) mystery for them. The Maze of Bones, written by Rick Riordan, works well. At 610L, it’s accessible to students reading at or above fourth grade level. As a bonus, it’s the first book in a series, which encourages students to continue reading after our mystery study is done.
In this story, two children (Amy and Dan Cahill) are given a choice: one million dollars or a clue, which will lead to the secret power of the Cahill family. The clue leads them to Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by Ben Franklin. They travel to Philadelphia and then Paris, following Franklin’s path. Along the way they experience danger from their competing relatives and others.
Supporting Comprehension of Mystery Novels
By nature, mystery novels have many characters and complex plots. This requires concentration and close attention to detail. Students in my classroom love mysteries but sometimes struggle to keep track of those details. As a result, comprehension is jeopardized. I’ve found that taking notes in a journal, discussing with targeted questions, and creating character posters or cards really helps.
Taking notes sorts it all out. Detective’s journals can be simple kid-created pages or elaborate teacher-created booklets. For each book above, I created a 24-page foldable detective journal. Kids answer questions, draw diagrams, make observations, and take notes. The detective’s journal requires students to read closely and look back at details in the text.
These questions prompt literature groups to notice small details and discuss ambiguous sections of the book. My students generally spend fifteen to thirty minutes discussing each set of chapters. If I let them, they would spend an hour! They like to talk about what they’ve found and challenge each other’s assumptions.
Character Cards and Sheets
Mystery novels may have large casts of characters. This confuses many readers in my class. Therefore, I provide character cards and/or posters. On these pages, kids keep track of who’s who (as well as any incriminating evidence against them). Click here for a free template to use for your character cards.
Building a Mystery Unit
Over the years, I’ve collected a variety of mystery materials. Unfortunately, they fit together in a hodgepodge sort of way. This year, I’m on a quest to create a complete unit!
To kick off our mystery unit, kids read short mystery stories. Then they analyze the suspects and map the clues. Additionally, they work on short inference activities. This helps them see how two or three seemingly unrelated ideas can allow a reader to discover something. Click here for this free mystery story and mapping activity. The entire unit is coming soon!
What mystery unit is complete without secret codes, observation activities, fingerprinting, logic puzzles, and invisible ink? These thinking activities bring barrels of fun to the study of mysteries.
As a culminating project, students develop a full-blown mystery. In addition, they create mystery pictures and paper bag mysteries.
Staging a mystery simulation in the classroom is a lot of work. With that in mind, I’m working on a video-based simulation. It requires little or no prep. Stop by soon for the finished product!
In conclusion, mysteries engage students and make them think. To optimize your mystery unit, choose one or more novels with clear clues, believable suspects, and ample red herrings. Look for books just a hair below your students’ reading level.