Recently my daughter was searching for her sketchbook when she found her missing paintbrushes instead. Such is the recovery of lost belongings. You’re looking for one thing, you find something else. I’ve stumbled onto story ideas this way. I’m so sure I’m writing about a missing brother, when I discover I’m actually writing about empathy and self-acceptance. Most good mysteries strike a graceful balance between plot and character development. These three do just that, by inviting you to look and look again, to uncover the stories underneath.
In Gillian Goerz’s SHIRLEY & JAMILA SAVE THEIR SUMMER (Dial, 224 pp., $20.99; ages 8 to 12), 10-year-old basketball-loving Jamila Waheed moves to a new neighborhood, where she meets 10-year-old loner Shirley Bones, who solves crimes for kids. Shirley orchestrates a deal between her mother and Jamila’s mother: She will accompany Jamila to the basketball court every day so they can get out of going to their respective summer camps. Then one day, a boy named Oliver needs Shirley’s help. Someone has stolen his pet gecko, which he brought to the pool. The girls investigate.
Goerz’s easy, comic style, reminiscent of the art in Raina Telgemeier’s books, brings her characters to life. She also thoughtfully portrays a diverse ensemble that includes Jamila, whose family speaks Urdu and whose mother wears a hijab outside the home. Dynamic action and backdrops help to frame the mystery. It’s fun to study a full-page crime scene: the layout of the pool, the “doody” chocolate bar thrown in the water, the callous lifeguards, the shady 12-year-old poolgoer, a lurking stranger in a hat. Cucumber-cool Shirley breaks down the clues, but she isn’t the only sleuth. Does Jamila want to be friends with this prickly know-it-all? She weighs the evidence (Shirley is “weird, but an interesting weird”) and concludes their friendship is indisputably worth it. Meanwhile, Shirley finds it easier to solve crimes with Jamila around. Here the novel deepens as the girls discover another surprising truth: Everyone deserves a chance to have his or her story heard, even the guilty. With a sly nod to the original Holmes and Watson, Shirley and Jamila use their wits to connect, with each other and their community.
Friendship also drives ELVIN LINK, PLEASE REPORT TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE (Christy Ottaviano/Holt, 224 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), by the New Yorker cartoonist Drew Dernavich. Fifth-grader Elvin Link doodles — on desks, walls and lockers. The principal gives him an ultimatum: Stop it or face summer school. But when a hasty student breaks a teacher’s eyeglasses in the school parking lot during an ice-cream truck visit, before fleeing the scene, Elvin offers to draw a composite sketch from the Eazy Freezy vendor’s description of the suspect. He does such a good job that the student is nabbed. Unfortunately it’s Carlos, Elvin’s best friend. Fortunately, Carlos forgives him. Elvin soon has a bigger problem: Peter Zorber, a notorious bully who’s bent on giving Elvin the wedgie of his life. Not only that, but the T-shirts for Field Day go missing, and Elvin and Carlos are suspects.
Readers will keep turning pages to find out if Elvin will solve his compounding problems and stay out of trouble. Fans of “The Strange Case of Origami Yoda” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” will appreciate Dernavich’s hilarious doodles, sight gags and silly asides, including his renderings of Elvin’s favorite expletive: “Turdmuffins.” There is more text here than in the typical graphic novel, but the story moves quickly, and the deadpan illustrations will make you laugh out loud. The plot becomes zanier as Elvin’s twin sisters get involved. Throughout, Elvin and Carlos play a variation of Frisbee they invented called flipdisc: Right before the toss, the thrower yells something desirable or disastrous, “so you have to make a quick decision whether it’s something you want to catch … ‘Limo full of robots that clean your room!’ … or not. ‘Poison-spitting llama!’” When you finish reading, you might just make flipdisc your new summer sport.
Speaking of summer, Nathan Page and Drew Shannon’s THE WITCH’S HAND: The Montague Twins series, Vol. 1 (Knopf, 352 pp., $25.99; ages 12 and up) — a gorgeously illustrated mystery that recalls the Hardy Boys yet feels entirely fresh and new — transports us to the summer of 1969. After their parents’ unresolved disappearance, the twins Alistair and Pete, now teenagers, were raised by a famed professor and his wife, who also have a teenage daughter, Charlie. Al is a brash photographer who locks himself up in a closet to process his photos. Sweet, tender Pete is in a closet, too, and his emotional coming out to his brother is one of the hallmark moments of the novel. Together, the three teenagers investigate the haunts of their sleepy beach town. But following their discovery of a mysterious box and their sighting of a female spirit, the professor’s protégé, Rowan, finally tips them off: The teens have magical powers. Part of a secret society of mages, Rowan is assigned to initiate them.
Meanwhile, the wealthy Roger Bradford, a descendant of the town’s colonial founders, unleashes an avalanche of conservative vitriol to suppress civil rights. His daughter, Rachel, to save herself from her mother’s murderer, invokes Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. How Rachel is linked to Pete, Al and Charlie is revealed deftly from panel to panel. Key illustrations that require a second look are richly rewarding. Bookended by the Stonewall Rebellion, which spurred gay rights, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, “The Witch’s Hand” reflects the turbulence of its time. On the surface, it’s a spooky ghost story, but the deeper mystery is how these kids work together to rise above the terror of being persecuted for who they are.
Sheela Chari’s new mystery novel, “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel,” will be published in October.