The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from HistoryAs the subtitle of The Mary Celeste indicates, this story of a ship whose crew disappeared while it was at sea is, indeed, An Unsolved Mystery from History. The picture storybook was written by Jane Yolen, an award-winning children's author, and her daughter, Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple. This is a terrific book and a wonderful introduction to historical research and problem solving for 8-12 year olds. Three things make the book so successful: the book's design, the illustrations by Roger Roth, and the way in which the authors present the story of the Mary Celeste.
The StoryThe narrator is a girl of about 10 or 11 who wants to be a detective like her father. She is practicing by trying to solve what she calls "history mysteries," mysteries from the past that have never been solved. Her father has told her that "no mystery is impossible to solve as long as you have enough clues." She then proceeds to tell the story of the Mary Celeste. From then until the very end of the book, all of the illustrations and text focus on the discovery of the abandoned ship on the high seas and the search for answers as to why the ship was abandoned and what happened to the ship's occupants.
Finding no one on board, Captain Morehouse decides to take the ship in for salvage. There are a lot of sensational newspaper reports when the mystery is made public. In the 1870s, there were many theories about what had happened but no one knew for sure. Even today, no one knows for sure.
The Importance of the Illustrations and DesignThe watercolor and pencil illustrations by Roger Roth fill the pages with scenes of the Mary Celeste, including a map with a timeline of the ship's movements. What makes the design of the book unusual (and most effective as a mystery to solve) are the additional bits of background information on each page. What look just like pastel post-a-notes dot the pages with vocabulary words related to the mystery. The lined pages of a spiral notebook provide background information to go along with the story.
These become very important when our narrator, the fledgling detective, challenges readers to review six theories of what happened and decide which explanation they agree with or if they have a different solution. The tendency is just to read the story text the first time through. Once the challenge is given, young readers go back through the book again and again to carefully review all of the information in order to come up with their own solutions or test out the theories given.