Desire to Understand

mys·ter·y1
ˈmist(ə)rē/
noun
1.
something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.
“the mysteries of outer space”
synonyms: puzzle, enigma, conundrum, riddle, secret, problem, unsolved problem
“his death remains a mystery”

2.
a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.
synonyms: thriller, murder mystery, detective story/novel, murder story, crime novel;
informalwhodunit
“reading a classic mystery”

Most muggles (thanks, JK Rowling for that fabulous word) would look at my middle school students and think they are mysteries. I’m often told how hard my job is because my students are so difficult to understand. In reality if my job is hard it’s usually because of adults and not the children who are in my room. Those of us who know and love young adolescents know that they really are not hard to understand. In fact their behavior typically follows patterns. Those patterns have not changed much since you or I were in middle school even though tech and fashion might have changed.

The true mystery in my classroom is the resurgence of mystery/thriller with my students. I have a small selection of mystery/thriller in my classroom library. A small section that I cannot keep stocked. In recent years, I’ve seen the tide turn from vampires and mythology to flat out murder.

I think there might be a few reasons for this. As I’ve stated before students love series. Most mystery/thrillers come in series. Favorites in my library include the Theodore Boone series by John Grisham, the Embassy Row series by Ally Carter, Gallagher Girls by Ally Carter, The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting, Forensic Mystery by Alane Ferguson, Blue Is for Nightmares by Laurie Faria Stolarz, Touch series by Laurie Faria Stolarz, Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, Al Capone series by Gennifer Choldenko. These span middle grades and YA, like most series in my classroom.

Favorite authors of mystery/thriller are John Feinstein, Carl Hiaasen, and Agatha Christie.

Once the series and authors are read, they move onto stand alones: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg, Conversion by Katherine Howe, The Walls Around Us by Nova Res Suma, Paper Towns by John Green, Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz, and Taken by Edward Bloor.

They still clamber for more. However, I’ve been unsuccessful in getting my students to pick up
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell or Panic by Lauren Oliver. I’m not sure what it is about these two books. I think book design might have something to do with it. However, we have a lot of conversations about judging books by their covers. We examine our biases. We discuss giving books a try even if we don’t like what the cover looks like. However, these don’t circulate. Personally, I though What I Saw and How I Lied was an amazing book. Evie is character who has stayed with me years after I read the book. As I sit here writing, I now wonder what will happen if I put the book in a speed dating rotation. I’ll try that in September, dear readers, and report back.

Luckily, I like reading mystery and suspense. As a young adult reader (when I was the actual target audience), I read my way through Agatha Christie. I remember many a summer day at the shore laying on my towel either at the pool or on the sand reading my way through a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot novel. I was partial to Miss Marple. Poirot seemed then, as he still does today, to be a bit pompous. I stayed up way too late read And Then There Were None, which is one of the books on our rising eighth grade summer reading list. It is still loved by my students. Being a YA reader in the early 80s meant there really wasn’t a lot of YA books out there. Yes, there was The Outsiders. There was Norma Klein, Paul Zindel, and Ellen Conford.But there was little else. Agatha Christie and Stephen King were some of the books that helped me transition from the children’s room to the adult side of the library.

So this summer, I find myself searching for more mystery/thrillers to add to my library. At the book fair last school year, I found the Point Last Seen series by April Henry. The premise is interesting: three teens training to be part of Portland’s SAR team. I liked the shifting POV and knew my students would as well. When I began The Body in the Woods, I struggled a little. I found Nick to be super annoying. I definitely understood Ruby is on the spectrum but felt sorry for her because no one, including her parents, seems to like her. Admittedly, Ruby has some quirks that make it a little tough to like her, but she is really likeable. And Alexis is completely aloof with no explanation. However, I gave the book a chance. As the plot unfolded so did the characters. I found myself caring about all of them and wondered how they were going to not only solve the crime but come together as a team. And even though I figured out whodunit, Henry kept me entertained. I eagerly picked up Blood Will Tell and had I not fallen asleep reading the book last night, I would know whodunit. I have my suspicions, but it seems too obvious. Henry has done a great job building suspense and making me really care about Nick. He’s not super annoying. He’s a really sympathetic character.

The other bonus to Henry’s books is her word choice. I’ve been looking for examples of writing with strong verbs to use as mentor texts in my class for both reading and writing workshop. I was ready to put this book to the side. It was just a teen mystery. There wasn’t going to be great writing. I was completely wrong. Her word choice did a lot to build suspense. I can’t wait to talk about how her choice of word creates mood. I envision a few Mad Libs type minilessons with some of the sentences I marked to help students understand that their words matter. I found myself reading and rereading passages in The Body in the Woods because I was reading for both work and entertainment. It ended up not being that much fun. I gave myself permission to just read for entertainment when I picked up Blood Will Tell. Suffice it to say, I’ve raced through this book (or as much as I can race when I’m reading before bed).

This summer I’ll be reading a few more books with puzzling crimes for my students who are not so difficult to understand.

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