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01 Apr, Saturday
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Montreal Families

Mysteries kids can sink their teeth into

Mystery novels are best suited for wintertime, when the frosty air and early darkness urge us inside to curl up in big chair with a mug of hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket. For children, these moments of nesting warmth can help create positive associations with reading, which I believe is key to nurturing lifelong readers. The beauty of a good mystery novel is that it grabs you from the start, tugging at the inquisitive side of your brain, which once turned on, will not rest until all the clues have resolved into a logical and satisfying conclusion. The high level of suspense found in this genre makes for fast-paced reads that will keep kids bundled in their blankets searching for hints and clues, emerging only for a cocoa refill to keep them going.

The Calder GameThe Calder Game (Scholastic, $19.99) by Blue Balliett. Ages 10 and up

Author Balliett is known for his intriguing art mystery novel Chasing Vermeer, which came out in 2005 and gained word-of-mouth success among young readers. In his follow-up, The Calder Game, Balliett once again spins his mystery around a work of art. This time, Balliett is inspired by American sculptor Alexander Calder, known for his large-scale mobiles.

The novel revolves around three friends, all boys living in Chicago. They are surrounded and inspired by the works of Calder in their games and pursuits. When one friend travels to England with his father, he unexpectedly finds a Calder sculpture in the middle of the small town where he is staying. But then this boy goes missing when he visits a castle hoping to explore its challenging hedge maze. On the same day, the Calder sculpture disappears and a famous art aficionado falls into a coma. Could the three events be connected?

Balliett weaves a fascinating plot filled with references to art and history. He piles on intrigue after intrigue for the reader by bringing in mysterious objects like the mobiles, the hedge maze, word games and pentamino puzzles, which are square tiles that can fit into a variety of shapes. He tries to awaken in the reader a love of art and how it is filled with mysteries and clues that we can see if only we open our imaginations.

A Northern Light (photo above – Harcourt, $9.95) by Jennifer Donnelly. Ages 14 and up

Set in the Adirondacks in the early 20th century, the novel uses a mysterious death to explore the changing role of women who were becoming less willing to abandon their education in favour of marriage or work.

The book tells the story of Mattie Gorkey, a 16-year-old girl who spends the summer working at a local resort. Mattie is torn about what to do with her earnings — give them to her impoverished family, save them as a dowry for an eventual marriage or use them to pay for a college education.

Then, Mattie meets a young woman named Grace Brown, who gives her a package of letters to burn. But when Grace turns up dead in the local lake, Mattie uses the letters to piece together the events that led up to the woman’s death. What emerges from the letters is not just the identity of the murderer but the choices that profoundly affect a person’s future.

In fact, the mysterious death of the young woman acts as a defining event for Mattie, forcing her to reflect on her future. She comes to the realization that she can change her destiny if she seizes control of her life. Donnelly’s novel is a rich and evocative tale inspired by true events. She brings in many issues that were boiling at that time including racism, poverty and sexism, issues which are still present and identifiable 100 years later.

Forget Me NotForget Me Not (Scholastic, $10.99) by Anne Cassidy. Ages 15 and up

In this gritty and contemporary whodunit, a toddler goes missing from a neighbourhood and one resident comes under scrutiny as a suspect because of secrets from her past. The suspect is Stella Parfitt’s mother. Stella is a teenager on the verge of finishing high school and anxious to get a job and start her life. When the toddler disappears and her mother is accused of the crime, Stella’s life is turned upside down. Stella discovers that her mother was implicated in a similar situation as a teenager and soon she begins to wonder if her mother might actually be guilty.

The story is told through flashbacks, and as the story of Stella’s mother emerges, the similarities between both incidents become evident, as do the similarities between Stella and her mother. The novel builds into a double mystery as the reader wants to know what happened to two missing children. As Stella learns more and more about her mother, she comes to understand how life can take unexpected turns and how our past shapes us. She begins to reflect on her own life and the direction she wants it to go in. Readers might get a bit confused by the British terms and colloquialisms used in the novel but they will have no difficulty relating to Stella and her feelings and emotions. The flashback scenes prove to be more compelling then the present-day ones, but as the evidence accumulates, the book comes to a breakneck yet satisfying conclusion.

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