We will now turn to the examination of short mysteries that will come from three different sources. Students will not use their notepads in these investigations. Rather, we will work together, recording the clues on the board or story paper as the entire group examines the mystery in search of facts.
Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World
This book presents fourteen very short mysteries from folk tales from different parts of the world. Each is one or two pages in length and is followed by the solution. The book contains small sketches and often diagrams that increase interest and make the solution easier to understand if students have difficulty determining the solution or just “don’t get it.” Third graders should be able to at least come close to solving them.
Still More Stories to Solve: Fourteen Folktales from Around the World
This book is similar to the previous source, but the mysteries are slightly longer and more difficult. Some are suitable for third grades, if the teacher selects them according to the ability of the class being taught. Most of them should be appropriate for higher grades.
Two Minute Mysteries
In this book, there are seventy-nine short mysteries. There is a detective, Dr. Haledjian, who appears in each story. Though the mysteries are only about a page and a half long, the clues are much more tricky and, thus, are more difficult to solve. The situations are also more adult, though not to the point where none would be of value for use with a third grade. They could provide motivation if they are presented as a challenge to students who have developed skill at solving the easier mysteries. The teacher of younger student needs to select the stories that are appropriate for the class being taught.
For teachers of older children, there are sources with longer and more difficult mysteries, (Five Minute and Ten Minute Mysteries) that one might wish to consult.
Material on the Internet
Two internet sites that I have referred to while discussing riddles (www.justriddlesandmore.com and www.kidsriddles.html) contain additional information that the teacher might wish to draw upon. “Mystery Corner” is a sub-topic of the kids’ riddle section. It contains a number of mini-mysteries similar to those listed above.
Examining an Entire Book
I have chosen to present three books of children’s detective fiction to my students. Each is part of a series that I hope students will choose to explore independently at a later time. All three books contain characters that represent the diversity that is one of my primary goals. I will present comments on all three books, but I will present the first in considerably more detail, relative to the approach I will take in the presentation of all three of them. It is important that the children have not read the book before, so that their predictions are based upon the clues they will gather. If one or more students have read the story, the teacher should consider switching to another book in the series.
The Blanket Burglar
The Blanket Burglar is part of a series known as “The Screech Owl Mysteries.” Sandra G. Garrett and Philip C. Williams wrote all of the books in this series. Although the book is written on a level that most third graders can handle, I will read the mystery to the class. This will allow the group to conduct the investigation together. It will also allow any student with reading difficulties to be included. Working together they will be setting up a pattern for the examination of other mysteries.
The six school children that populate the books in this series represent what is almost the ultimate in diversity. There is even a dog, but sadly not a cat. The three boys and three girls, who appear to be about ten or eleven years old, have banded together to form a club whose objective is to solve mysteries. After some debate they decide to call themselves the Screech Owls because owls are curious like detectives. These owls are also usually brown and gray, mixed with white and black. These are colors that they feel are “Like us!” A bit convenient, but it gets the point across. Their members include:
, a Latino
, a Makah Indian
, an African American
, a white
, an Asian
, a deaf mute
, a faithful dog
Not only are they the almost perfect picture of diversity, they each make at least one significant contribution to the solving of the mystery. Even Wolf does his share
Though this situation might be difficult to duplicate in reality, it gives the students an ideal and shows it working. There is something in the story for almost anyone to identify with, whether it is one’s race or ethnicity or the ability to make a positive contribution to the group.
Presentation of The Blanket Burglar
I will read the mystery to the class. Though the book does not have chapters, it is clearly broken into sections by a row of six asterisks. As I read, they will now use their notepads to jot down what they believe to be clues presented in each section. When each section is completed, we will discuss the clues as a group. These clues will be written on a piece of chart paper that will eventually include all of the clues. They will then jot down any conclusions they may have been drawn. We also will record any predictions that they might have made at this point. “Where do you think the story is going?” “Are there any clues that you believe are red herrings?” Their predictions will also be noted on a piece of chart paper.
During the next reading, the same procedure will be followed. In some cases, we may cover more than one section in a period. However, the examination of the facts that seem to be clues, the conclusions we have drawn and predictions that we have made will consume the majority of the session. It should take about a week to cover the entire story. At the start of each reading, we will review the charts we are compiling. When the mystery is revealed, we will review all of our clues, conclusions, and predictions in order to evaluate the course of our investigation.
Summary of The Blanket Burglar
In this mystery, Screech Owls attempt to discover who has stolen Mrs. Lolanski’s blanket from her clothesline. The six young characters band together, form their detective club, and proceed to solve the mystery. Each makes a particular contribution to the solution. They are constantly reviewing their clues, drawing conclusions, and making predictions, some of which prove to be incorrect. In the end, they discover that the culprit is a runaway horse who got tangled in the blanket. A grateful Mrs. Kolanski bakes them cookies shaped like ponies and all’s right with the world.
Clues Students Might Find in The Blanket Burglar
Since I am covering this story in more detail, I have included a list of clues that students might select:
- Mrs. Kolanski’s missing blanket, a gift from her sister in Kentucky
- Strange horse tracks in the yard
- An unusual chip in one hoof print
- Specks of mud
- Various pieces of blanket on a fence
- A small broken branch from a Sitka spruce tree that they find in an area where such trees were not present.
- A small grove of Sitka spruce trees that is located in another area
- A strange beast they see during their investigation. The beast appears to be a centaur.
- A picture taken by Mei-Li as they run in fear from the centaur. (The creature has the body of a horse and what seems to be the head of Abraham Lincoln.)
As I have stated, a frightened runaway horse is the guilty party. He had become caught in Mrs. Kolanski’s blanket that had a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it. You will remember that the blanket came from Kentucky, which happens to be the birthplace of President Lincoln.
The story ends with a short glossary of vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar to students, followed by a moral that trumpets the value of diversity in “knowledge and background” as a means of accomplishing one’s goals. These concluding elements are a part of all books in this series.
Completing a Story Map and Writing a Summary
Students will now review the elements of the story map for a mystery that they developed previously. As they often do in regular reading class, they now will fill in the various sections, this time using information from The Blanket Burglar. This will then supply them with the material needed to write a detailed summary of the mystery. These will then be shared with other members of the class.
The Mystery of Apartment A-13
Our investigation of children’s detectives will continue with The Mystery of Apartment A-13. The same steps used with The Blanket Burglar will be followed in presenting this story. This book is part of a series called “The Kooties Club Mysteries” written by M. J. Closson. The characters in this book also contain most of the elements of diversity that I am looking for in my mysteries, although all of their members are boys. I am including a brief summary so that the teacher may more easily determine if this mystery is one she or he wishes to use. It has definite variations from The Blanket Burglar.
The Kooties, as this group of young detectives call themselves, include five boys, Abe, Ben, Gabe, Toby, and Ty. The setting appears to be an inner city neighborhood in and around a large housing complex that many would refer to as a “project.” The race and ethnicity of the boys is never really defined, though the reader may draw some conclusions from their names coupled with the illustrations. These are black and white sketches of boys with physical characteristics that lead the reader to believe that in the most general terms their members are African American, Latino, and white. One is fat, one is skinny, one wears glasses, and all look rather awkward. Having been rejected by some of there classmates, they “hang” together and look for mysteries to solve. The name of their club, The Kooties Club, comes from the fact that others claim they are distasteful because they have cooties, a common technique used by some children wishing to ostracize others. The boys turn it into a positive, saying that if no one else wants to bother with you, you’re included in their circle. They seem relatively happy and secure within their group.
Summary of The Mystery of Apartment A-13
Ty, one of the “koots,” becomes curious when he realizes that he has never seen the person who lives in apartment A-13 in the building across from his. Since he knows everyone living in the building, this seems particularly strange to him. He shares his observation with the rest of the “koots” and the mystery is born.
After elaborate observation, planning, and some outright snooping, they decide that something menacing is happening in A-13. Each night a strange person parks in the building lot, takes a bundle to A-13, and returns with another bundle that is placed in the car’s trunk where there are other similar bundles. Once this visitor returned with a basket of clothing that was also placed in the trunk. They suspect that the clothes were covering a body or something equally sinister. Throughout their investigation they never see a light coming from A-13. They also are unable to explain the screams, laughter, and arguing that they heard coming from the apartment as they made one of their investigative attempts. Circumstances lead to the revelation that a blind man lives in A-13. He receives daily Meals on Wheels, returns the dishes and utensils the next day, and occasionally is brought a book recorded on tape. He has no use for lights, so he never turns one on. Naturally, the “koots” and he become friends, leaving us with the feeling that they will visit often.
In the end, the mystery is solved for the reader and for the “koots,” but they do not really arrive at the solution through their investigative skills, though they certainly discover a number of clues. Hopefully, students will be more successful in drawing conclusions and making predictions as they gather the facts from the story.
As a final activity, students will complete a story map for the story and write a summary as they did for the first book. Their opinions regarding both books will be compared.
Lost in the Tunnel of Time
The last mystery book which we will read as a group, Lost in the Tunnel of Time, is a part of the “Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs” series by Sharon M. Draper. This story is considerably longer than the other two that the class will have read, and there is considerably more substance to the content of its pages. Though a search for an underground escape passage used by African American slaves as they fled northward is the primary focus of this mystery, this book’s primary attribute is the dramatic personal picture it paints in showing the plight of these escapees. It is geared to a slightly older audience, probably around fifth or sixth grade, but, if the story is read orally with appropriate discussion, it offers considerable expansion of historical information that third and fourth grade students have likely encountered in more academic presentations. Though there is no crime, real or suspected, to solve, at various points characters use clues to solve the dilemmas they face.
Ziggy, Rico, Rashawn, and Jerome, four young African American youths, are going on a class outing along the Ohio River on a tour boat near their home in Cincinnati. Ziggy’s accent reveals his West Indian background. They are fun loving preteens who have formed a club that meets rather irregularly to solve mysteries. They care about school but are not the most conscientious of students. They also have a faithful dog, Afrika, who belongs to Rashawn. In print and illustration, they are presented as boys with whom my students could easily relate.
Summary of Lost in the Tunnel of Time
During their outing on the Ohio River, the “dinosaurs” and their classmates hear much of the fact and folklore surrounding the area’s connection to the Underground Railroad from their teacher and Mr. Greene, an older Black man who is rich with historical information about slavery and, particularly, the Underground Railroad.
After the excursion has ended, Ziggy reveals that in order to help him write his report on the Underground railroad, Mr. Greene has given him a very old map showing underground passageways that were dug to facilitate escape to the Ohio River and eventually on to freedom. These tunnels are located beneath what is now the site of their own school.
Naturally the Black Dinosaurs decide to find the tunnels. They manage to achieve their goal, but disaster strikes, shortly after they have found the remains of a bundle left behind by an escaping slave. The tunnel caves in and they are seemingly doomed, since they have been careful to conceal their whereabouts. They experience the desperation and fear that was probably similar to the feelings felt by slaves as they maneuvered these same tunnels. Luckily, with the combined efforts of a classmate, Mr. Greene, their teacher, parents and relatives, an entire rescue crew, and that faithful dog, Afrika, they are rescued, safe and definitely wiser. Naturally, Ziggy writes an inspired report that is included at the end of the story, along with some factual information on the Underground Railroad.
Since the mysteries in this story abandon the pattern of detective fiction found in the first two books, students will abandon their role as detective. Rather, they will discuss facts and events thoroughly as the story is read. Finally, they will fill out the same story map and the resulting summary. They will then discuss this story in relationship to the other two that they have read.