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Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They’ll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.
If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe’s classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.
Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor.
As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek’s. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she’s studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina’s house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.
Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle’s avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family’s nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author’s note that explains how the conclusion of the novel’s mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.
At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians’ focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin’s ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.
Chester Keene Cracks the Code
Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother’s best friend’s bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who’s holding riddles number two and three.
Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester’s dad’s way of communicating that he’s in trouble and needs Chester’s help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester’s dad. But could Chester’s reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?
Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel’s larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles’ true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that’s as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.
Diversity is a part of Chester’s world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester’s town’s various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.
Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family.