It was a lot harder than you’d think to find mystery books for kids with characters of color. I want to thank my Instagram followers for their help in putting this list together:
West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher series by Liam O’Donnell
Myron is on the autism spectrum which makes him a great detective because his observations are based on fact and logic rather than emotion. When snacks go missing from his school cafeteria, it would seem that Sarah “Smasher” McGintley might be the culprit, but Myron and his classmates (which include children of color) from Resource Room 15 search for evidence in unlikely places until they find out what really is going on.
The Buried Bones Mystery: Clubhouse Mysteries by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon M. Draper writes a solid mystery with enough suspense and danger to hook readers. She does a brilliant job of bringing in issues like gentrification and development in inner cities and the backdoor politics that accompany it shown through the lens of four friends, all African American boys. They form a club to solve mysteries with the first one landing literally next door, when they unearth a box of bones. The answer to what they are and why they are there illustrates the hidden avarice that affect and plague their neighborhood. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Lost in the Tunnel of Time: Clubhouse Mysteries by Sharon M. Draper
Ziggy and his friends discover that their school is a stop on the Underground Railroad. Their friend, Mr. Greene from The Buried Bones Mystery, gives them an old map that indicates the secret hiding tunnels under their school. They plan a night where they can follow the trail, but when the old tunnel collapses, their way out is unclear.
Sharon M. Draper’s series combine well paced mysteries steeped in African American history. While the characters are African American boys, this series would appeal to girls as well, and also to kids who are not of color. It would be a shame to think that the audience is limited to just boys of color. Fans of Magic Tree House, A to Z Mysteries and Bailey School Kids should give this a try. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh
Cake also goes missing in this mystery series set in Botswana so it’s a natural pairing with West Meadow Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher. Precious Ramotswe is one of the nicest girls in Botswana with a talent for solving mysteries. This wonderful series shows what everyday life is like for Precious in Africa that include what she eats, her school, and the wild animals that surround her community.
In this book, her father tells her his story of surviving a lion encounter. Precious sets a trap to discover the cake thief at school only to discover that all suspects must be considered before being eliminated and that includes four legged ones as well. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Mystery of the Missing Lion: A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh
The Mystery of the Missing Lion was a nominated for a Cybil which is where I first met Precious Ramotswe. In this book, Precious goes to the Okavango Delta where her aunt lives on and works for a safari camp. A tame lion used in movies disappears and it’s up to Precious to find this valuable animal. These gentle adventures would appeal equally to boys and girls and give a realistic portrayal of life in modern Africa. I particularly like how African animals are incorporated in each story. (early chapter book, ages 6 and up)
The Mystery of Meerkat Hill: A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh
Of these three Precious Ramotswe mysteries, this is my favorite (though there are many more). Brother and sister, Teb and Pontsho, are new students at Precious’ school and their pet meerkat Kosi makes for an amusing addition to school! But when Teb and Pontsho’s pregnant cow wanders off and ends up in a huge herd that’s heading off to market, Precious figures out a way to identify it with the help of Kosi, saving the day.
This series does a wonderful job of showing life in modern day Botswana. It’s written in old fashioned voice with wood cut illustrations that marry well with the book’s tone. While the mystery has a placid pace which is not for everyone, readers will appreciate Precious’ ingenuity, her kindness and willingness to help others, and a glimpse of every day life of someone their age in another culture. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Julian, his best friend Gloria, and his little brother Huey are determined to find criminals after studying the photos for WANTED! CRIMINAL ALERT! in the post office. It turns out that just by keeping a lookout on things, they are able to rescue a dog trapped in a hot car, and return a wandering toddler back to his mother. But it’s The Wizard that they think they’ve nabbed; the nice boy at the diner that gives them freebies when they are hungry. Could he really be a criminal mastermind? They notify the police chief and get ready to close in.
This is a gentle, appealing mystery set in a urban inner city. Think of it as Peter in The Snowy Day a little older in search of a mystery. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Grand Canyon Burros that Broke: Field Trip Mysteries series by Steve Brezenoff, illustrated by Marcos Calo
Four friends work together to solve mysteries they encounter while on field trips. While this seems implausible — so many field trips? A mystery at each field trip? — kids won’t mind. Brezenoff uses a different character to tell each story. In this one, Egg, a.k.a. Edward G. Garrison, gives his perspective as the mystery unfolds while the class is visiting the Grand Canyon. Like The Painting that Wasn’t There, the mystery to be solved is pretty straight forward but I think this is age appropriate. This is a great series to try out with fans of A to Z Mysteries and Bailey School Kids especially for kids of color who would like to see themselves reflected in books. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit: Ninja Detective by Randi Rhodes
While the plot seems slightly implausible — a small town hovers on the brink of survival depending on the success of its Founders Festival, a PR attraction in which the President of the United States will open its time capsule — it still is a well paced and fun mystery read. Twelve year old Randi Rhodes is here in Deer Creek, the home of her newly deceased mother, with her mystery writing father. She’s not happy to be relocated from New York City. She makes a new friend, D. C. who are practices martial arts, and together they decide to locate the missing time capsule in time for the Founders Festival in order to save his mom’s business and prevent the town from a redevelopment scheme to turn it into a resort. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Vanished by Sheela Chari
Eleven-year-old Neela plays a traditional Indian stringed instrument called a veena. Her’s is special. It’s carved with a dragon and is a gift from her grandmother in India. When it goes missing from a local church (in Arlington, MA), Neela learns more and more about her instrument and the dragon associated with it. her instrument has a mysterious past, disappearing over and over agin. The clues bring her back to India where she hopes to track it down and find out once and for all why everyone is after her instrument. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
The Case of the Firecrackers: Chinatown Mysteries by Laurence Yep
Yep’s Chinatown written in 1999 still holds true today: Asian American actors have limited roles in film, gangs battle over control of territories, and homelessness is still a problem. Lily’s great-aunt Tiger Lil is both an actress, public relations agent, and detective for those in need. When TV star Clark Tom is in town, a prop gun with live bullets puts him in danger and suspects include Lily’s brother Chris! To clear his name and get to the bottom, Tiger Lil and Lily must navigate Chinatown’s notoriously dangerous gangs to find the real culprit.
Laurence Yep’s gritty, fast paced mystery will shine a different light on Chinatowns the world over. This is a Chinatown adventure for those with a stout heart. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
Murder is Bad Manners (A Wells and Wong Mystery) by Robin Stevens
Sherlock Holmes + Downton Abbey + 1930’s Posh Girls Boarding School = Wells and Wong Mysteries
While this book is set in 1934 England (and has time appropriate anti-Asian racism), it is still the same modern day appeal of a Downton Abbey drama though I’d argue that this chapter book has even more intrigue! Told through the eyes of Hazel Wong, an 8th grader who comes to Deepdean school by way of colonial Hong Kong. She is the “Watson” to Daisy Wells’ “Sherlock Holmes.” Or is Hazel more than “Watson?” She finds the dead body of her teacher. They both discover the vicious underbelly of public school politics when it seems that the appointment to deputy headmistress is a job worth killing over. As the secretary of the Wells & Wong Detective Society, Hazel writes up the case notes to the mystery which becomes this book. Her notes chronicle multiple murder, stresses on her friendship with Daisy, love triangles amongst teachers, and life for the children of the British aristocracy. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Three Mysteries for Kids and Teens with Art Thefts
The Painting that Wasn’t There: Field Trip Mysteries by Steve Brezenoff, illustrated by Marcos Calo
For readers that live near art museums where famous painting have been stolen like Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, this mystery might seem predictable. Still, Steve Brezenoff does a good job introducing a wide cast of suspicious characters. James Shoo and friends use their acute powers of observation to follow the clues in time to stop an art theft. The reader will have fun honing in on the clues as well. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Mystery on Museum Mile: Eddie Red Undercover by Marcia Wells
Sixth grader Edmund Lonnrot’s photographic memory and artistic skills are put to use by the NYPD to catch a ring of art thieves. His best friend Jonah’s OCD comes in handy when trying to figure out the thieves’ strategy that involves a geometrical puzzle as to where they will strike next. Edmund’s private school is also on the line; if he can help catch the thieves, he can earn next year’s tuition. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series; Marcia Wells’ mystery is well paced. She mixes humor and action, creating a compelling read that will draw in both boys and girls. Her characters are spot on and feel like real people; her background as a middle school teacher has clearly come into play! [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery by Bridgette Alexander
Celine’s divorced African American parents are part of New York City’s elite; her father is a partner at a large investment bank, and her mother is a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When two small and not particularly valuable paintings go missing, Celine’s mother is under suspicion. The paintings’ history are mired in the racial tensions of the Deep South. As Celine closes in on the lost paintings, she is drawn into a bitter struggle that can rewrite history. Who knew curating an art show could be so dangerous? [young adult, ages 14 and up]
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