By Melanie Koss, Associate Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Department of Curriculum and Instruction
You’ve read The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan and read all about how Nell helped her Aunt Kate Warne, the first female detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from the Baltimore Plot. And now you’re hooked. What do you read next? More mysteries set in the past? Mysteries set in Chicago? Biographies of Abraham Lincoln? Nonfiction and historical fiction about the Underground Railroad? Or perhaps you want to read more about code breaking and becoming a detective or a spy. No problem. Here are a wide variety of books for middle graders hooked on detective work and the Civil War years.
Books marked with an * are a part of a series.
Historical Mysteries (Note: many of these have fantasy elements and are not straight historical fiction.)
Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by Japan, and it’s possible a second attack might be planned. There is a way to stop it though, if four brave individuals can be found. Madge, Joe, Kiku, and Walk are four thirteen-year-olds who just might fit the bill. An odd curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has gathered them together in the hope that they can find the missing pages of the Kelmsbury manuscript, a book of Arthurian legends, hidden in the museum’s collection. But the four have no idea of the dangers they will face, as they are suddenly overcome by the lives of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere, and Morgan le Fay. They must alter the course of history if they have any hope of saving the U.S.
In this sequel to Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My . . . , Ike once again causes Ben Franklin trouble when he travels back in time with information from the future, information that backfires! Now Ben is being chased by an angry mob, the Founding Fathers are less than thrilled with the problems Ike has caused, and Ben and Ike are on the run. Can they find a way to save the country from sure disaster from the antsy British?
In 1910 Indiana, orphan Audacity Jones always causes trouble at Miss Maisie’s School for Wayward Girls. In fact, she’s sent to the Punishment Room almost every day! She escapes through adventure books, and longs for an adventure herself. She gets her wish when Commodore Crutchfield, a donor to the school, shows up at school and asks for a volunteer to help him with a secret mission. Of course Audacity jumps at the chance and is quickly taken to Washington, D.C. (along with her favorite cat Miniver, a secret stowaway). There she finds the adventure she’s been looking for. She must unravel a plot against President Taft! Follow along to see if Audie can save the day. Each book in the Audacity Jones series has Audie solving mysteries related to different historical figures. Book 2 has Audacity helping to save Harry Houdini!
Ada Lovelace (the world’s first computer programmer) and Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein), fast friends from childhood, come together in 1826 to form the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, a secret agency focused on finding clever criminals. In book one of the series, they must track down the thieves who stole a priceless heirloom, discovering lies, uncovering the truth behind a fake confession, and using computational thinking and deductive reasoning to help the police find justice.
Daisy Well and Hazel Wong love solving mysteries. Living at Deepdean School for Girls in the 1930s, the best friends form a detective agency, with Daisy taking on the role of Sherlock Homes with Hazel as her Watson. Unfortunately, nothing worthy of investigation seems to happen, until a murder that is! On a fateful day, Hazel discovers the dead body of their science teacher, Miss Bell, a body that later disappears. Daisy and Hazel suspect murder and can think of a few people who might have wanted to cause harm to Miss Bell, so they’re on the case. They begin spying, searching for clues, and using all of their honed detective skills to try and find the murderer be he or she kills again.
The first three titles are all written by Blue Balliett, an author who lives in the Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood, and writes about mysteries based in Chicago and her area in particular.
Petra and Calder, two unlikely students at the University of Chicago Lab School, are brought together when a peculiar old woman needs them to help solve a mystery. A priceless Vermeer painting has gone missing, and odd occurrences are happening. The two suddenly find themselves involved in an art scandal of international proportions! They must solve puzzles, decode clues, study Vermeer, and use their problem-solving abilities to solve a crime that international agencies have been unable to crack. Readers can join in by decoding letters using the pentomino code and findings the secrets hidden in the illustrations.
Petra and Calder are back, this time at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House which has been scheduled for demolition! Mysterious accidents and the appearance of potential ghosts lead the pair to uncover clues and figure out what is causing the disturbances. Calder’s friend Tommy joins the pair to hunt for a coded message said to be left by Mr. Wright himself. Read along to find clues and crack puzzles with the trio as they work together (sometimes) to solve the mystery even adult detectives cannot solve. The pentominoes are back, along with hidden messages in the illustrations, keeping readers guessing and sleuthing to the very end.
Thirteen pieces of priceless art have gone missing from the secret Farmer Museum, including a Vermeer and a Manet. Calder, Petra, and Tommy must figure out who the thieves are and where they have hidden the treasure. With the help of Zoomy, a boy who is legally blind and wears incredibly thick glasses and Early, a girl in love with words and work problems, the crew is on the hunt. Strange things start going on with the mysterious Mrs. Sharpe, strange people and ghosts, and even an odd cat. Each teen connects with specific pieces of art, almost as if the art is trying to tell each of them something. Can they solve the clues and save the art? Can readers solve the puzzle along with Petra, Calder, and friends? More coded messages are sprinkled throughout, including mysteries with prime numbers, clues hidden in nursery rhymes, and other secret surprises.
Al Capone and the gangster era has taken over Chicago in the 1920s. Newsboys were just that, boys. But Isabel Feeney doesn’t care. She goes against the norm by selling the Tribune on street corners and longs to be a reporter like her idol, Maude Collier. She’s waiting for something newsworthy to happen when she accidentally comes across a murder and Maude Collier at the scene. Isabel must come to the rescue of her friend accused of the murder. Can she save her in time?
The Thorne Rooms are a famous collection of miniature rooms housed in the Art Institute of Chicago. Each of the 68 rooms is set in a different period in history and is filled with miniature items crafted with meticulous detail. Visitors to the rooms can become captivated by the rooms and wish to be able to go inside and explore. After finding a magic key that allows you to shrink and enter the rooms, Jack and Ruthie do just that! When they discover that someone else might have used the key and entered the rooms before them, and might have left a clue to a mystery, Jack and Ruthie hunt for clues and answers.
Nonfiction related to the book
While covering Lincoln’s life from birth to death, Commander in Chief focuses on his life during the years of the Civil War. Marin describes Lincoln as being the country’s greatest and most significant president and captures his conflicts with his military officers as his knowledge of military strategies and tactics grew. A lot of foreshadowing regarding events relating to his eventual assassination is provided as critical analyses of the beliefs of the North and the South are addressed, described and contrasted to the political beliefs of our country today. This book uses a lot of primary source materials, adding to the legitimacy of the content. Notes and additional information on Lincoln is included at the end.
Told from the point of view of Lincoln’s sons, Willie and Tad, the playful, fatherly side of Abraham Lincoln is shown. Many books only describe Lincoln as a serious president, but this book provides a much more rounded view of his personality and personal struggles. Multiple anecdotes are shared from the boys’ mischievous antics, as well as their perspectives of the war years in which they see changes in their father as he deals with sadness in his own life. P.J. Lynch’s illustrations add to the picture of Lincoln presented. This unique book is a must for Lincoln enthusiasts.
This Newbery-winning biography covers Lincoln’s life through the inclusion of photos, drawings, letters, and unique quotes and tidbits that present a sometimes humorous yet utterly real depiction of the famous president. It covers his childhood, his marriage and family life, his professional life leading up to his presidency, and this leadership leading to his assassination, an event he expected and accepted. Part scholarship, part riveting narrative, this book deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf.
- The Lincolns: A Scrapbook by Candace Fleming (a history of Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd, using a lot of primary source materials, written like a scrapbook)
Just as Lincoln and His Boys shares the family life of Lincoln, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook focuses on both Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd. Using primary source materials such as photos and letters, this book is presented as a scrapbook of their lives. Both of their childhoods are shared, as is their unusual courtship, leading through the struggles of their marriage through the deaths of three of their children and the trauma of the Civil War. Included are fun facts and photos, including stories about the goats their children kept on the White House lawn and about their beloved dog.
This giant book stands out with its larger-than-life trim size and old newspaper design. Initially conceived as a one-year anniversary edition of an April 14, 1866 newspaper, the book reads as if written during the time period. Using the format of a newspaper, with an abundance of stories and facts, a complete timeline of the day Lincoln was assassinated is provided, along with the capture and ultimate hanging deaths of some of the perpetrators. Other stories describe Lincoln’s life as a child, his struggles as a president leading a country in strife, and a detailed, yearly overview of the Civil Was overall. Included are advertisements, pen-and-ink drawings, fonts and headlines, all lending to the authentic feel of a newspaper.
Underground Railroad and Slave Catchers
Stories often tell of the experiences of people working or traveling on the Underground Railroad, but The Journey of Little Charlie tells the story of
the slave catchers. After Charlie’s father died, Cap’n Buck comes to collect a debt from his family and they have no way to pay. They’re poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, and without Charlie’s father they’re at risk of losing their home and their lives. Charlie strikes a deal with Cap’n Buck to try and save his family. He agrees to accompany Cap’n Buck to hunt down runaway slaves, something Charlie finds quite distasteful. When Charlie actually meets some of the runaways, he must struggle between what he feels is right and what he was commissioned to do.
- Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War by Thomas B. Allen
This biography of Harriet Tubman tells not only of her life, but also information on how the Underground Railroad actually worked, including information on codes used to pass secret messages on to runaways, such as quilts and songs. Using primary source documents such as diaries, photographs, maps, and military documents, Harriet Tubman’s life as a conductor and spy for the Union Army is carefully told. Extensive backmatter, including timelines and author’s notes, is included.
Accessibly written, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a compelling narrative of the life of Harriet Tubman. It tells of how she was born a slave and then escaped to freedom, and then risking her life and possible capture to help other slaves who wished to be free.
Based on the true life of Solomon Northrup, and the story that inspired the movie 12 Years a Slave, this biography tells the tale of a free black man living in New York who was captured and sold into slavery in the South. For 12 years he was held captive, until he is finally rescued by his friends from New York who made it their mission to find him and bring him home.
- The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was put into law, but people in the town of Oberlin, Ohio, believed that all people deserved to be free. When John Price escaped slavery in 1856 and came to live in Oberlin, he began his life as a free man, until a band of slave-catchers found him and captured him. The townspeople of Oberlin banded together to save John and risked their lives to demand his safe return to their town.
Cryptograms and Detective Work
This handbook explains the difference between codes, ciphers, and secret writing, shares challenges and practice section, and teaches how to be an expert at top secret messages. Stories of real life codes and ciphers and their impact on history are shared, lending a unique and fascinating look into the world of secret messages.
Chock full of secret codes and how to make them and break them, this book is a great guide to becoming an expert in six different tricky codes. Illustrations are provided to make the process clear cut, and multiple code-breaking challenges are incorporated. Ciphers and materials for creating codes are included as back matter.
This book is filled with top-secret information. Once read, you’re on your way to becoming a full-fledged spy. It takes you through different challenges and levels of spyhood, and shares secrets of the biggest real-life international spy agencies. Real life information is included, so your spying talents can begin immediately.
As the title says, this is the real guide to becoming a spy, complete with information on what spies really do, the training they actually go through, how to live undercover (no one can know if you’re a spy!), and the danger it might include. Written by a former CIA agent, this book provides a complete overview of terms, spy history, and challenges for budding spies.
- The Secret Agent Training Manual: How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
For those who desire to be a spy, detective, or secret agent, this book is for you. It includes more than 80 pages of training on how to write, code, and decode secret messages. Tips for making decoding wheels and tools and even your own invisible ink. Once readers study this book carefully, they’ll be able to create unbreakable ciphers and hide them where no one but those in the know will be able to discover them.