1. Marjorie Weinman Sharmat – Nate the Great series
Nate is a tiny Sherlock Holmes for a young audience, born of the 1970s, whose Watson is a dog called Sludge. He loves pancakes. He is perfect. (Incidentally while I was Googling, I learned that Emily the Strange is a remarkable ripoff of one of Nate‘s minor characters. Thank you for solving that one, internet.)
2. Donald J. Sobol – Encyclopedia Brown series
Encylopedia Brown is known as Encyclopedia for his incredible ability to retain information no one else bothers to remember or even know. Possibly my favorite thing about his stories was that they were SHORT, which I always found incredibly satisfying to my distaste for delayed gratification. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from him was that if you carve your name onto a tree at ground level, it will not be WAY UP THERE fifty years from now.
3. Wendelin Van Draanen – Sammy Keyes series
SAMMY KEYES. The Veronica Mars of the late nineties midgrade set, the coolest of girls, the best of detectives. If you read Sammy Keyes and did not have a devastating crush on her I can only determine that you were a LOST AND EMPTY CHILD. Seriously, though, Sammy Keyes is. The. Best. And back in the day they had these great cover designs! I obsessed over these covers—why? Because they were perfect! Cool, sharp, and interesting. Distinctive. PERFECT.
4. Crosby Bonsall – The Case of the Scaredy Cats, The Case of the Dumb Bells, The Case of the Cat’s Meow
NEIGHBORHOOD MYSTERIES. Crosby Bonsall’s mysteries are great, because they’re all about gangs of little boys being territorial and foolish and kind of bad at stuff, and then figuring out that SOMETHING WEIRD (not that weird) is happening and having to get together and fix it, squabbling all the way. They resent girls and little brothers, in the true fashion of a classically trained child male. Side note for non-obvious name: Crosby Bonsall is a lady writer.
5. David A. Adler – Cam Jansen series
Cam Jansen is called Cam short for Camera not because there are things wrong with her parents but because, like Encyclopedia Brown, she is preternaturally good at things. In her case, she is good at having a photographic memory! She uses it to solve mysteries and shuts her eyes and says CLICK! every time she needs to access a particular memory. I read approximately one billion of these books.
6. Ellen Raskin – The Westing Game, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Mysteries
No competition in my mind, The Westing Game is the hands-down winner of children’s mystery novels. It is smart, weird, uncomfortable, and perfect. It is actually a bit like the movie of Clue, although with fewer all around murders. In it, a high rise apartment building is constructed by a lake, under the eye of an old house. The master of the old house dies. All of the new tenants of the apartment building, hand-selected, find themselves in the will. All of them have secrets. One of them committed murder.
Side note: Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer attempted a similar mystery style, but for me completely fell apart by introducing some hand-waving mystical stuff at the end. No one gets handed anything they want in The Westing Game.
7. Eve Titus – Basil of Baker Street series
FAVE SHERLOCK HOLMES. Mouse Sherlock Holmes and his mouse Watson lifemate have different names from their inspirations because they live in Holmes’ house and are being the mouse versions of them completely on purpose. I have not read these books in a thousand years, and so I am afraid I cannot tell you for certain if Victorianesque mice are as rife with sexism and racism as Victorian men, but I had boundless respect for Basil as a young person.
8. Gertrude Chandler Warner et. al. – The Boxcar Children
The first Boxcar Children book was written by a schoolteacher and included important life knowledge such as: how to store your milk bottle in a running stream so it keeps cool. Later they get less “portrait of some uncomfortably unsupervised orphans doing mysteries and living in a train” and more “case of the week written by a hundred different authors,” but I ATE THAT UP. I don’t know how many of them I read. I got one from my teacher for Christmas in the second grade and immediately dropped it in a greasy puddle. I used to arrange all of them in rainbow order when I worked as a shelver at the library.
9. James Howe – Bunnicula series
The first Bunnicula book is co-written with Deborah Howe, and involves this poor dog being run around by this cat who’s freaking out because their people got a rabbit and the cat thinks it’s a vampire. The cat DOES NOT ADJUST WELL. After they figure out the rabbit isn’t going to kill anyone (and James Howe starts writing on his own) the cat has already developed a taste for mysteries, so he drags this poor dog (and a later, stupider dog, but not generally the rabbit, because rabbits do not go for this nonsense) on a bunch of other paranoia-driven quests.
A note to all authors: DO NOT FEED YOUR DOGS CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES.
10. Franklin W. Dixon et. al. – The Hardy Boys series
My dad kindly read me a few Hardy Boys books in this basic format and I spent the entire time screaming over words such as “chums” and the fact that I, who have always been incredibly bad at solving mysteries, generally knew what was happening. Let it never be said that there was a time when I did not like to read critically and with a smidgeon of rage.