The best books about kids suddenly caught up in mysterious circumstances

Who am I?

I’ve always been drawn to stories that feature mysterious locales and secret objects and strange or magical occurrences, so books with these elements—particularly when the main characters in the books are young people learning about themselves and the world around them—are often very satisfying to me. There’s something naturally engaging, I believe, in tales where someone is thrust into a disorienting situation and has to make sense of the uncertainty he or she faces. The books I’ve written for young readers all tend in this direction, and so I’m always on the hunt for stories along these same lines.

I wrote...


By Ben Guterson, Chloe Bristol (illustrator),

Book cover of Winterhouse

What is my book about?

Orphan Elizabeth Somers’s malevolent aunt and uncle ship her off to the ominous Winterhouse Hotel, owned by the peculiar Norbridge Falls. Upon arrival, Elizabeth quickly discovers that Winterhouse has many charms―most notably its massive library. It’s not long before she locates a magical book of puzzles that will unlock a mystery involving Norbridge and his sinister family. But the deeper she delves into the hotel’s secrets, the more Elizabeth starts to realize that she is somehow connected to Winterhouse. As fate would have it, Elizabeth is the only person who can break the hotel’s curse and solve the mystery. But will it be at the cost of losing the people she has come to care for, and even Winterhouse itself?

The books I picked & why

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls

By John Bellairs, Edward Gorey (illustrator),

Book cover of The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Why this book?

This book, which came out in 1973, was John Bellairs’ first novel for young readers (it remains his most popular) and featured a dozen shadowy illustrations by eventual Goth favorite Edward Gorey. In it, Lewis Barnavelt arrives at his uncle’s creepy-intriguing house and embarks on the sorts of adventures I think many kids wish for themselves: encounters with magic and the people who can work it; discoveries of clues and puzzles and mysterious books; evasions of danger; and the company of gentle grown-ups one leap beyond their parents. This book completely fired my imagination when my fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to my class years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. 

The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid

By Colin Meloy, Carson Ellis (illustrator),

Book cover of The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid

Why this book?

This humorous, intelligent tale—about a diplomat’s son who befriends a troupe of young pickpockets in early-‘60s Marseilles—is a brisk read by a writer who cares as much about the rhythm of his sentences as he does the arc of his story. Before our hero knows it, he’s caught up in a life of excitement that begins to make sense to him—until it doesn’t. Full of surprises, including one that walloped this reader as much as it does the main character, this novel navigates a shadowy and unexpected world where young teens talk like seasoned criminals, and friendship itself is a risky proposition.

The Thief Lord

By Cornelia Funke, Christian Birmingham (illustrator),

Book cover of The Thief Lord

Why this book?

Long a favorite of mine, every couple of years I enjoy returning to this book about two brothers who fall in with a group of Venetian street children and the young master-thief who oversees them. Funke's classic, assured style grants this relatively contemporary novel (first published in Germany in 2000) a charming, old-fashioned sensibility, while the pacing and characterization should appeal to the most modern of readers, at least to my eyes. The book has everything I love in stories for young readersmystery, magic, friendship, and startling plot twists–and the interior illustrations done by Funke herself are lovely.

The Secret Keepers

By Trenton Lee Stewart, Diana Sudyka (illustrator),

Book cover of The Secret Keepers

Why this book?

Trenton Lee Stewart’s follow-up to his enormously popular and influential “Mysterious Benedict Society” series was received with puzzlement by many fans expecting a retread of the MBS adventures, but I find this audacious, intricately-plotted, wildly implausible tale somewhat irresistible. It all kicks off when eleven-year-old Reuben, at once introverted and adventure-seeking, discovers a strange watch that ensnares him in deep troubles. Finding his way out proves endlessly complex and bewildering as Reuben sifts through one peril after the next. It’s a beguiling tale for those doubly-willing to suspend disbelief—Stewart dares the reader to try.

James and the Giant Peach

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of James and the Giant Peach

Why this book?

Bizarre, misshapen, and sweet, this is the Roald Dahl book I find most alluring. A much-beloved tale, the plot sounds phantasmagoric in distillation: a house-sized peach sprouts overnight from a tree outside the shack where young James is essentially kept imprisoned by two cruel aunts; the boy tunnels into the fruit’s pit, befriends the band of enormous talking insects within, and the whole gang embarks on an adventure where the peach bobs out to sea, is carried through the air by hundreds of seagulls, is attacked by creatures who live on clouds, and eventually comes to rest on the spire of the Empire State Building. Intrigue, humor, and rambunctious versifying abound—and the once-forlorn James is not only unvanquished but happy. Nice ending.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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