Sleuthing and Snooping:  Real and Imagined Mystery Read-alouds

For middle elementary students

Before reading

Build excitement for this unit of study with:

• A bulletin board with black silhouettes of some favorite book characters or other objects and lots of question marks. Hold a contest to see how many the students can identify. Use this as a way to launch a discussion about puzzles and mysteries. (“Do you enjoy puzzles? Figuring things out on your own with just a few clues?”)

• An activity that uses deductive reasoning. Tell students the following short story: “The boy was afraid to go home, because the man in the mask was there.” Allow them to ask yes-or-no questions to solve the mystery. (“Home” refers to home plate, and the man in the mask is the catcher.)

Let students know that for the next unit of study they’ll be taking a closer look at books with puzzles, or mysteries to solve.

Your middle elementary students may actually already be reading mystery chapter books on their own, including these popular series:

Abbott, The Secrets of Droon (Lexile range:  340-720)
Adler, Cam Jansen, and the Young Cam Jansen (Lexile range: 210-590)
Butler, The Buddy Files (Lexile range: 450-500)
Bauer, The Golden Ghost, The Red Ghost, The Blue Ghost (Lexile: 440)
Conford, Jenny Archer (Lexile range:  350-470)
Hale, Chet Gecko (Lexiles between 410 and 580)
Howe, Bunnicula. (Lexile: 710)
Koontz, Short tales: the Furlock and Muttson Mysteries
Preller, Jigsaw Jones (Lexile range: 260-480)
Roy, A to Z Mysteries and Capitol Mysteries (Lexile range: 380-650)
Sharmat, Nate the Great (Lexile range:  110-480)
Simon, Einstein Anderson (Lexile range:  620-780)
Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown (Lexile range:560-880)
Warner, The Boxcar Children (Lexile range: 320-700)

Some of these make excellent longer read-alouds, but for teaching the genre the picture books below work well for mini-lessons. Students may not yet realize that mystery fiction has its own unique characteristics. Assess during an early discussion what students already know about mysteries. (Perhaps use some of the popular series as springboards.) Introduce common elements using this resource from Together build a graphic organizer which highlights the elements of many stories in this genre, or use this one. Then, as you share some picture book mysteries during mini-lessons and read-aloud time, the class can fill in the chart.

Compare/contrast different stories. Do all stories have all of the elements? If some elements are missing, what effect does this have on the story? Are some stories more suspenseful than others? Why?

For additional resources for this age group, Teachers First has a review of a complete unit on developing reasoning and critical thinking using detective fiction. It includes lessons and activities built around the Nate the Great series and the Cam Jansen books. Also look for support materials at this Teachers First reviewed site.


After reading

Once you’ve shared a number of picture book mysteries and completed some graphic organizers, students can read longer mysteries on their own during independent reading. Have them complete this planning sheet from This will require practice with summarizing and being as concise as possible. Afterwards, students can complete an online interactive Mystery Cube activity using the information on their planning sheet. The template can be printed out and cut, folded, and taped to form a 3-D cube for display and sharing.

Expand the scope of mysteries to include mysteries from science and music. Bookmark Geo Myste ries (from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis) and
Musical Mysteries (from the BBC, to support the music curriculum of Northern Ireland) for your students and allow for centers time or computer lab time to solve these mysteries just for fun!


Recommended Books

Ahlberg, Allen. The Cat Who got Carried Away. ISBN: 0-7636-2073-4. Lexile: 430
This is one book in a series of books about the Gaskitt family. Perfect for second and third grade, it has lots of color illustrations, short chapters, and spare text. Extra features like maps and a timeline add interest and support for readers. (This book is a great one to share with a document camera if you have access to one.) There’s actually more than one mystery going on here. In addition to the disappearance of the Horace, the family’s cat, Mrs. Gaskitt seems to tired all the time and is eating strange foods. Children will be satisfied if not surprised by the ending. The pace is fast, there’s a sense of urgency, and there’s much your students can relate to—especially in the scenes at school. Totally fun!

and (also in the series) The Children who Smelled a Rat. ISBN:978-0763628703 Lexile: 710

Christelow, Eileen. Gertrude the Bulldog Detective. ISBN: 0-395-58701-8 (No lexile available)
Gertrude wants to be a detective, and her amateur antics are driving her friends crazy! Tired of being spied upon, they decide to divert her attention by planting some fake clues that put her on the trail of a non-existent criminal. Gertrude has the last laugh, though, as she uses her skills of observation, eavesdropping, pawprint examination, and disguise to foil some genuine crooks involved in a museum heist.


Christelow, Eileen. The Robbery at the Diamond Dog Diner. ISBN: 0-89919-425-7 Lexile: 460.

Clement, Ron. Grandpa's Teeth. ISBN: 978-0060276713. Lexile: 530.
When Grandpa's beautifully crafted false teeth go missing, the whole family (and eventually the whole town) gets involved in this silly whodunit. Everyone is forced to smile all day long as proof that their teeth are their own. Things get out of hand as mistrust grows. Will they discover the culprit before disaster strikes? Students will love the crazy antics of these characters and the laugh-out-loud visual punchline.

Hurd, Thacher. Art Dog. ISBN: 0-06-024425-9 Lexile: 580
This is a fast-paced picture book with lots of references to famous paintings your middle elementary students probably know. Though it doesn't strictly follow a typical mystery story line, it is another fun one to begin a unit and set the stage for others. Mild-mannered Arthur Dog is a guard at the Dogopolis Museum of Art. He loves his job because it allows him to be near great works of art all day. When there's a full moon, though, our hero dons a mask, grabs his box of paints and brushes, and creates beautiful murals around the city. When the Mona Woofa is stolen, the masked artist is thrown in jail. Fortunately, Art Dog's ability to paint what he needs to escape and an uncanny nose for art, puts him face to face with the real culprits.

Kelly, John. The Mystery of Eatum Hall. ISBN: 0-7636-2594-9. (No lexile available.)
This would be a great choice to launch the mysteries unit of study and set the mood. Glenda and Horace Pork-Fowler, for whom eating is a favorite pastime, are oblivious to the motive behind an invitation to dine at Eatum Hall with Dr. A. Hunter. The dark illustrations are full of details about the mystery host and his real plan for the couple, and students will delight in poring over them and making predictions.

Teague, Detective LaRue: Letters from the Investigation. ISBN: 978-0-545-01863-0. Lexile: 950
Somewhat sophisticated vocabulary and tongue-in-cheek humor is the order of the day in this series of letters from wrongly-accused Ike to his owner (who is vacationing in France). Nothing is as it appears according to Ike, who mounts his own investigation into the whereabouts of Mrs. Hibbins's cats. Oddly enough, a series of canary burglaries occur at roughly the same time. There are lots of fun references to police and detectives, and updates on the case are provided through newspaper headlines and snippets.  Older students will be able to appreciate the humor here, especially the contrast between the black and white and the color photo illustrations, which give two versions of the same events.


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