Book List: Detectives, Spies, & other Sneaky Sorts

Picture this. You’re a bookseller, being asked for recommendations for a ten-year-old kid who loves reading but needs something new. You pause in front of the shelf before grabbing three books to suggest – and as you give your spiel on each, you realise despite being by a range of different authors from different countries and eras, they all have one thing in common: spies and criminals!

Turns out, it’s a theme that pops in a whole lot of our favourites – so when we were asked to come up with a books-in-a-genre list, it only made sense to share a bit of that mystery with the readers of The Sapling.

Who Stole the Rainbow? – Vasanti Unka – Puffin NZ

Vasanti Unka’s style – that of her illustrations and her words – is riotously colourful and a feast for the eyes. Yes, this is a picture book, but it is also absolutely a mystery thriller. Detective Beagle is on the case of a missing rainbow – and through his investigation, the mystery is solved and a solid helping of easily digestible science education is wrapped into it. Great for any budding detective or scientist three and up! 3–6

Hound the Detective – Kimberly Andrews – Puffin NZ

Another mystery-oriented picture book from Aotearoa, featuring another canine sleuth, Hound the Detective is the latest from Kimberly Andrews, of Puffin the Architect fame. The fun and detailed illustrations make it perfect for its double-duty purpose as a rhyming storybook and search-and-find experience with a great surprise at the end. 3–6

The Inkberg Enigma – Jonathan King – Gecko Press

You’ll see this one popping up on lots of best-of-the-year lists and in local bookshop summer newsletters – wink – and for good reason. Jonathan King’s debut graphic novel is a visual feast for any mystery fan – especially those with a penchant for Tintin. It’s got a grand dab of Aotearoa gothic and mystique to it, with all the delicious murkiness of a peculiar small town. 7+

Lizard’s Tale – Weng Wai Chan – Text Publishing

We’ve been champions of Lizard’s Tale ever since bookseller Briar oversaw the sales of the book at its launch. A spy story set in Singapore on the cusp of the Second World War? Yes please! Weng Wai has done an incredible job bringing to life the vibrancy of her birthplace, while capturing the gritty sides too – the lives of kids on the fringes, the challenges of being mixed race, the quiet loom of approaching war. It’s got a sense of humour, it’s got twists and turns, and you’ll be craving curry puffs just like Lizard by the end of it. 8–12

Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh – Collins Modern Classics

Harriet, Harriet, Harriet. This is a longtime favourite of several Little Unity staff and many a would-be detective has had this modern classic pressed into their hands by us. Harriet’s writing ambitions? Great! Her inclination to obsessively scribble down secret observations about those in her life in her notebook? Not so great. Louise Fitzhugh’s depiction of Harriet and her 1960s New York world will yank you in faster than you can say ‘Ole Golly’. 8–12

The Good Thieves – Katherine Rundell – Bloomsbury

This one is basically about Robin Hood-esque kids in 1930s New York City, complete with nefarious mafia grown-ups. If that’s not enough to hook you, think about the other magnificent titles that Katherine Rundell has brought to us: The Explorer! The Wolf Wilder! Rooftoppers! All excellent, all compelling, and The Good Thieves is maybe the best of the bunch. 9–13

Murder Most Unladylike – Robin Stevens – Puffin

Another firm favourite in the middle-grade space is Murder Most Unladylike, which combines all the intrigue and exploits of detective shenanigans with a boarding school setting. It’s the kind of combo dreams are made of. Set in 1930s England, a pair of pupils begin their own in-school Detective Society to solve some harrowing mysteries. 9–13

Sleuth & Solve: History Ana Gallo & Victor Escandell – Chronicle

If you’ve got a young reader who’s a history buff… but you’re after something a bit different from standard non-fiction offerings, this puzzle book is heaps of fun. There are 20 mysteries to solve, all with a historical bent, so it’s a great way to fine-tune the logic centres of young readers’ brains while also letting them soak up all that historical goodness. 7+

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead – Text Publishing

Could this be the all-time best mystery book ever? Bookseller Hera thinks so. This atmospheric, funny, and ingenious story is set in NYC in the 70s. Protagonist Miranda starts getting messages saying “I’m coming from the future to save your life” – but from whom? The intricate end result will leave you gasping, and you’ll be desperate to sink your teeth into more Rebecca Stead goodness. 8–12

Enola Holmes: The Case of the Missing Marquess – Nancy Springer – Allen & Unwin

If you’ve got kids and a Netflix account this one won’t need an introduction. Just in case this one has skipped you by, Enola Holmes is the spunky younger sister of Conan Doyle’s original creation – but she’s got her own mystery to solve on her own, independent of her more famous brother. It’s a heck of a page-turner, and there are many more titles in the series following on from the Netflix-adapted first one. 8–12

Recommendations from the Little Unity team (Ange, Bam, Briar and Hera) and words by Briar.

Little Unity can be found right next door to Unity Books Auckland on the corner of Vulcan Lane and High Street. They pride themselves on bringing the best of kids books from Aotearoa and beyond to the Auckland CBD. Alongside ‘Big Unity’, Little Unity was the 2020 recipient of the London Book Fair International Bookstore of the Year award.

Briar Lawry is an English teacher and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She worked in bookshops for years, most notably Little Unity, and judged the NZCYA Awards in 2020. She was also one of the editors of The Sapling between 2019 and 2023.