Saturday, January 15, 2011

Can You Solve This Mystery?

HANK: OK, Reds, here's a mystery for you to solve. Right here, right now. Courtesy of Eric and Natalie Yoder. (Digression: Is this father- daughter team cute, or what?)

Read the mystery story, figure it out if you can! And then you'll see what today's post is all about.

Stars in Their Eyes

Mr. Sakura was known for giving a lot of homework, and a lot of it was very tough. He also
was known for having a sense of humor.

His assignment to the class was this: “Over the next week, at a time of your choosing,
identify the star that looks the largest in the sky.”

The day they turned in their answers, a group of friends gathered outside after school and
talked about what they did.

“I used binoculars, but even then, no one star seemed bigger than any of the others,”
Xavier said. “So I just picked the North Star. I don’t know if it’s the biggest, but at least it’s
easy to find.”

“I did some research on the Internet and found that Vega is a really bright star,” Paul said.
“I managed to find it one night. But I couldn’t tell if it’s the biggest star in the sky or not.”

Bradley said, “I used a telescope I got as a little kid and looked at the constellation
Orion—you know, the one that is supposed to look like a hunter wearing a belt. I picked one
of the belt stars, Mintaka. I tried to measure it against the other ones. It looked a little bigger,
but I don’t really know.”

“That’s what you guys get for not looking closely enough,” Nicholas said. “How could you
miss it?”


HANK: So? Did you get the answer? Eric Yoder and his daughter Natalie think the mysteries of science and the mysteries of mystery can be linked together in a terrific and valuable way--and not only for kids! So. Whose idea was One Minute Mysteries, 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science? (They also did math.) And why?

ERIC: It was my idea originally, but the idea didn't start as a book. When Natalie was in about 5th or 6th grade, I started writing some short mysteries just for fun. Mostly they were based on what she was learning in school at the time, specifically science class. I was trying to find a way to reinforce what she was learning in school and show that school material does have actual use in the real world.

HANK: How well I remember yowling, just tell me one reason I'm gonna need this when I grow up! (Trigonometry, specifically, I just couldn't see the value, until someone told me engineers use it to figure out how many parking spaces can fit in a parking lot. THAT made sense.) Do you remember any of those, Eric? Do you, Natalie?

ERIC: In both books, the goal was to make stories that could be solved by applying school subject matter in a creative way. One of the first ones I wrote was what ended up as a story in the science book called Shadow of a Doubt, which is about a girl who loses her earring and the solution depends on realizing that over the course of a couple of hours, a shadow will move. So that was taking a fairly simple scientific principle and working backward from it to create a mystery about it--why isn't it where she thinks it is?

When we did the math book, it was a bit more challenging to make those true mysteries rather than elaborate numbers problems. But the process was pretty much the same. For example, we started with an idea of doing one based on a light year being a measure of distance, not time, and ended up with a story that has a red herring, a simple math mistake that can distract the reader from the underlying solution.

NATALIE: Another thing we did was to make sure the stories were set in places kids normally are. So, a lot of them happen around school, in the backyard, at camp, at sports games and places like that. That helps them think that this could be happening to them. We didn't set many in class, because we didn't want this to be just like another school book.

HANK: So the point is: making the solution something that has to do with what they learned in school? Why did you think that was important? And tell us another one!

ERIC: I hate to use the term "make learning fun" but that's basically the idea. Looked at the other way, it was a way to present mystery stories that were solvable using information that they have been exposed to.

Another of the early ones from the science book, which is structured more as a classic one of these three people did it story, depends on knowing that a bat is a mammal, not a bird. So, you start with that idea and work backward from there. Pretty much naturally, that one ended up being set in a zoo, and it actually became the first story in the science book.

NATALIE: One of the first simple ideas I had was from a ski trip. This idea came when an activity in ski school involved a treasure hunt to find something hidden. When our ski class stopped there, the box was gone, which gave me the idea for a story. One possible explanation was that an animal got to it first but the reasoning behind the story is that bears would be hibernating. Another story idea I got on that trip involved background knowledge of hot springs, that there would be no chlorine in the water.

HANK: Was Natalie already a mystery fan?

ERIC: We used to read Nancy Drew, the Wishbone mysteries, the American Girl mysteries and others together when she was younger. So I would write one here and there just for fun when I had the inspiration. Eventually, she started writing some on her own to try to stump me.

HANK: Oh, Natalie, do you remember any of those?

NATALIE: Like any child, my dad used to read stories to me which always came as more of an interest to me than stories like a fairy tale because there was always a puzzle. Until I got old enough to read them myself my dad and I would try to work together to solve the mystery.

HANK: And then what?

ERIC: It was really just sporadic for a long time, but after we had maybe 15 or 20 of them, it occurred to me that this could be the basis for a book.

HANK: Tell us more about that.

ERIC: There was a personal connection that helped. The mother of one of the girls on Natalie's gymnastics team is the publisher of a company that sells books into the family and academic science markets. So I asked her if she might be interested. She looked them over and was excited but said she wanted only stories on science, so we had to discard a number of them we had done on other subjects. And of course, the natural number for a collection of one-minute mysteries is 60, so we had to get more disciplined about writing them. That meant coming up with a lot of MacGuffins.

NATALIE: After we had the first 20 or so, the stories started coming easier. There are a lot of things in daily life that could be perceived as a puzzle if you look at them that way. Each of us wrote some on our own but sometimes one of us would have a basic story or puzzle and the other would fill in the rest.

HANK: Writing these books must change the way you look at the world!

ERIC: When you're in the course of writing one, you do look at everyday events and think about how could that be a mystery. Did something surprising happen, and why, or was there a change in something that has to be explained. Natalie often will bring ideas home from school, based on something she's learning at the time. We've been building a file of them, which we'll need for the second science mysteries book we're starting on soon.

NATALIE: After writing these books, I have realized that one or two people can help influence and teach others directly. By being on the radio and in participating in book signings, you realize that the world is actually a much bigger place, and that your work can affect many people.

HANK: How do you two work together?

NATALIE: Working as a team definitely makes this process easier and more fun. Most of the time, one of us will either come up with a puzzle, or a story line, and the other one of us will piece the rest of the story together. Sometimes, if we write a story independently, we will go over it together to add a twist, or just to make basic edits.

ERIC: For some of them, we just sit at the computer and work until we have a few stories for the day, but others are more strokes of inspiration and we would write them wherever we were when the idea struck. I have a whole folder of stories that were written on scraps of paper in the car or in the living room or on vacation, some of them actually pretty complete. Natalie did some just on her own and I also did some on my own, especially early on when we were just doing them for fun. But we worked together to polish almost all of them. It really helps to have a second person suggesting what a character might say or do in a situation, and what needs to happen in the story. Short as they are, they do have characterization and plot.

HANK: How have kids (and parents and teachers) responded to these?

ERIC: We've gotten really positive reactions from parents, teachers, home schoolers, general mystery readers and lots of kids. If you look at the comments about the books on Amazon and in the reviews we got, they all like the concept and the stories. Teachers have said they use stories as homework assignments or warmup problems, or just read them in class to start discussions. And I know a lot of parents use them as bedtime stories or stories for in the car.

NATALIE: It's so great to hear from someone who has read the stories who has positive feedback. I had a teacher at my school who I didn't really know call me into his office and show me an article about me from his hometown newspaper, and lots people have said they have seen the book in stores or heard the radio shows. Some of the girls I do gymnastics with, or the children I babysit for have often told me that they enjoy the stories, and that makes writing worth it.

HANK: Love it! So, gang, did you get the answer to Mr. Sakura's assignment?


Eric Yoder ( is a successful business writer at The Washington Post who loves sharing his passion for mysteries and education. Natalie Yoder ( is a high school senior whose favorite subjects are psychology, science, and math. She began writing books with her father while she was still in middle school. Both authors have been featured several times on NPR’s “Science Friday with Ira Flatow.” In addition, they have received multiple awards and recognition from national and international parenting, education, and science organizations.


  1. Oh yeah, I get it (really I do). But I'm not saying.

    I used to teach elementary school (I really did) and science was my favorite subject for just this reason. The questions were all things kids could relate to and use their own observation and logic to draw conclusions. That works until you get to physics where all bets are off.

  2. Great idea and post. Goes to show not everything under the ****SUN**** has been done before.

    And how obvious the answers are, but yet hidden. I've forwarded it to my teacher daughter. Anything that makes learning fun never goes out of style.

    Thanks for introducing these books.

  3. Eric and Natalie, these are so clever! My hat's off to you and congrats on working so well together as a team. Once a year I teach mystery writing to a group of fifth graders--I bet they would love your books!

    And Natalie, are you headed off to college? If so, where--or not sure yet?

    Thanks for the visit! (And ps, if you guys need help with physics, Hallie's husband is your man. and he draws wonderful cartoons too...)

  4. Oh, yes, good idea! Hallie's husband is amazing.

    I can't wait to introduce my grandchildren to these oboks...Eli is 8 and will be completely into it!

  5. I just called my 10-year-old, Virginia, in and let her take a crack at "Stars in Their Eyes." I'm pleased to say she solved the mystery right off the bat.

    This looks like a terrific series. Ginger loves short mysteries--she's read a lot of the ones Natalie cites from her younger days--and one of the best ways we've found for her to work on math facts is with math games and puzzles.

    We're driving down to New York City on Monday; I think I'll swing by the bookstore today and pick up these up for the trip.

  6. Thank you for the kind words, everyone. Natalie will be going to college in the fall but hasn't decided where. She's still waiting to hear from a couple of schools.

    Funny that physics should be mentioned. One of the stories involves centrifugal force and we ended up bouncing the solution off a number of physicists including, literally, a rocket scientist. We concluded that there are no two physicists in the world who would agree on how to phrase it. It showed us how careful you have to be when writing a story that touches on a specialty.

  7. They remind me a bit of the old Encyclopedia Brown mysteries that I loved as a kid. The librartian at our school gave those book to me when they were weeding out the books that needed to be replaced. They're on my desk as we speak :)

  8. I'm in. I really need to do this. I go in my office to work, I decide to check my e-mail first and next thing you know half the morning is gone.

    I'm polishing a manuscript, so I really don't need a word count or pages challenge- this one sounds perfect!

  9. Oops- I posted my comment at the wrong space- sorry, I meant to post it on the writing challenge.