The best kidlit novels where characters (and readers) work to solve puzzling matters

Who am I?

I teethed on Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown; I dove further into mysteries with Agatha Christie, Donald Westlake, Mary Higgins Clark, Harry Kemelman, Dashiell Hammett, and whatever my parents had at home. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get enough of TV game shows plus puzzles and brainteasers of all kinds. So, when it came to writing my first novel, it naturally followed that I combined what stirs some excitement within. Even now, with No Way Home, my first YA thriller, I’ve found myself combining mystery with a puzzle-like element. I suppose there’s no escaping what intrigues me when I write and even when I read. 

I wrote...

The Gollywhopper Games

By Jody Feldman, Victoria Jamieson (illustrator),

Book cover of The Gollywhopper Games

What is my book about?

Gil Goodson’s future happiness depends on winning Golly Toy and Game Company’s ultimate competition. If Gil wins, his dad has promised the family can move away from all the gossip, false friends, and bad press that have plagued them ever since The Incident.

Gil has been studying, training, and preparing for months, and once he makes it through the tricky preliminary rounds and meets his teammates, the competition gets tougher. Brainteasers, obstacle courses, mazes, and increasingly difficult puzzles and decisions—not to mention temptations, dilemmas, and new friends (and enemies)—are all that separate Gil from ultimate victory. Does Gil have what it takes to win? Do you?

The books I picked & why

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The Westing Game

By Ellen Raskin,

Book cover of The Westing Game

Why this book?

AKA a book I wish I’d have written; then again, it was a groundbreaker.

I’ve almost never (since childhood) read a book more than once. I’ve read this three times and partially because it’s, perhaps, the first book that also reads like a puzzle. I was smitten as I followed the various characters—potential heirs to Sam Westing’s fortune, who must work in assigned pairs, each using the unique clue given to them—to solve the mystery of his death. I was so close to figuring it out the first time and needed to read it a second time to see where I missed what might have put me over the edge. The third time, years later, just because. It may be time to read it again.

When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead,

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

AKA a book I wish I’d written except I’d never have come up with this plot twist. 

Contemporary fiction and mysteries may be my go-to genres but, please, give me more genre-busting stories like When You Reach Me. Not only does it combine friendships and friend issues, science fiction, historical fiction, and mystery but there’s also a game show element. Oh, and puzzling notes: strange instructions the main character must follow in order to prevent a tragic death. I’m there for every word. Full disclosure: I was on a message board with the author while she was writing this. But even if she didn’t talk about the challenges of writing her Newbery Award-winning book, I would have found it anyway.

The Parker Inheritance

By Varian Johnson,

Book cover of The Parker Inheritance

Why this book?

AKA the book I wish I’d written. but I’m not a colored boy from the 1910s nor a 1940s Negro tennis player nor a contemporary Black girl.

Varian Johnson has so expertly woven rich heritage and unique characters in these three time periods that this book is a master class in writing. More than that, it’s a compelling story that centers on a girl who temporarily moves to her late grandmother’s house, where she finds a letter revealing the first clue to a puzzle, one that may lead to a fortune. The excitement of the plot, a page-turning mystery, also showcases a remarkable depth of culture that has brought me a greater understanding of the Black South then and now.


By Patrick Carman,

Book cover of Floors

Why this book?

AKA a 4th book I wish I’d written, but not sure I could have pulled off the setting. 

Each floor of the Whippet Hotel is well… you judge. The floors may be haunted or have caves and ponds or a flying farm or just might be a giant pinball area where the couches act as flippers. That may be intriguing enough, but there’s also a missing owner plus the son of the caretaker (living in the more normal but ultra-cluttered basement) who is given a series of boxes that may help him save everything that’s important in his life. Within the wild and wacky, this is a book filled with heart.  

The Inheritance Games

By Jennifer Lynn Barnes,

Book cover of The Inheritance Games

Why this book?

AKA yet another book I wish I’d written, but I hadn’t yet ventured into writing YA yet; oh, and there’s the matter of the huge and, somehow, believable premise.

As a kid, I would knock on walls, hoping to find a hidey-hole for something valuable or, at least, mysterious. The Inheritance Games, set in a vast estate with secret passageways and even more secrets, lets me experience that dream vicariously… and safely, unlike the main character, who must live there for one year if she is to inherit $46.2 billion left to her by a total stranger. The setting, the puzzles, the sense of mortal danger had me forgetting to eat anything that day except the words that hurtled to a thrilling climax.

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