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How to Plan a Program around Mystery Stories
by Chris King

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from an elementary school media specialist who was in search of a storyteller who told mysteries. They had planned a “Mystery Week” at one of the schools where she works. She had e-mailed me, not because I was known for telling mysteries, but because I am quite active in the Ohio storytelling community and should know many Ohio tellers and their specialties. I didn’t know of any who told mysteries! And, thinking about the many stories I have heard, I didn’t remember hearing any mysteries.

But, I did have a solution for her. Because I love a good mystery, and because I was ready for a new storytelling challenge, I told her that I would do it. I was at her school all day telling to K-2, 3-4 and 5-6. It was a huge success. Keep reading if you love mysteries, too, and want to know how I proceeded.

The first step was learning the ingredients of a good mystery. And most good stories already include many of these. There must be a problem (crime), a perpetrator of the crime (usually, not knowing who or what this is creates the mystery), a motive (reason) for the problem (crime), all the necessary clues for solving the mystery and the resolution (solution).

The next step was to find the stories to learn and to tell. Most of the mysteries I have read involve murder, and I knew that wouldn’t work for elementary school age children. I also knew that there was a big difference between Kindergarteners through sixth graders and the types of stories that would be fun and challenging for each group.

A story for all the groups. I have my own and quite popular interpretation of “The Case of the Black Bubblegum” where I involve my own family - my son Chris, especially. The problem and perpetrator is the gum; the motive is that the gum needs my son as a host to stay alive, the clues are that the gum keeps returning to its host; and the solution is that I keep the gum from its host and it finally dies. I decided that this story would work for all ages and it did - it is always a hit!

I picked stories for K-2 that were easy for them to follow yet held a kind of mystery. First was the little boy who answered the phone while hiding in the closet (a mystery for the caller and his family). Then there was the “Mystery of the Three Dolls” (I changed it from a riddle to a mystery); the “Case of the Empty Pot” (seed did not grow because it had been boiled); and one of the Encyclopedia Brown stories.

Let me tell you about the Encyclopedia Brown stories by Donald J. Sobol. Leroy Brown (known as “Encyclopedia” because his head is filled with facts) is a fifth grader who has his own Brown Detective Agency, helps his father, the Chief of Police, solve mysteries and catch the criminals. There are many, many books and each is filled with short, interesting challenges for Encyclopedia. The clues - which range from scientific facts to observed behavior - are there, Encyclopedia solves the mystery and the reader is directed to the page that tells “How?” I learned and used several of these for each group. The media specialist was delighted because they have many of the books in their library.

For the third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders, I had the announcement made that they should bring a paper and pencil with them for making note of clues. I also found that they listened intently throughout - you could have heard a pin drop! The third and fourth graders weren’t as quick with the answers as the fifth and sixth graders, but that was OK because they had thoughtful answers and I would tell them when they were getting close to the solution.

I also found a great kids’ mystery website at: where two cousins, Nina Chase and Max Decker are the detectives. The clues are all there and you can either solve the mystery or ask for more clues. Again, the fifth and sixth graders were quick with the solutions.

Two other stories that I used with the older groups were a math problem of sons dividing their deceased father’s herd of camels and the “Wise Judge” that appears in the first book of Ready-To-Tell Tales by David Holt and Bill Mooney. This one stumped the third and fourth graders, but not one quick student in the older group. Note: this is also the book where I found the story of the Three Dolls. It is filled with wonderful, never-fail tales.

With each group, we followed the telling with time for questions and answers. Of course, everyone wanted to know if the Black Bubblegum story was true, but they also wanted to ask questions about mysteries and storytelling, along with writing stories. There was lots of interaction during the solving of the mysteries and the follow-up sessions.

I left the school feeling that all the work of learning new stories and spending the whole day telling was well worth it. I not only had a blast, but I now have a new niche and plenty of new stories in my repertoire. My only advice to you is to tackle something like this if you love the genre and be prepared for a challenge - and lots of FUN too!


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