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The Mary Celeste

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Cover of The Mary Celeste history mystery for kids
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History

As 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 Story

The 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.

The story opens with the discovery of the abandoned ship in early December of 1872. The Mary Celeste is sighted by the crew of the cargo ship Dei Gratia drifting aimlessly 600 miles west of Portugal. No one responds when that ship's captain, David Reed Morehouse, hails the ship through his speaking trumpet. Three of the crew members of the Dei Gratia board the Mary Celeste, searching carefully for clues as to what has happened. The Mary Celeste had set sail from New York the previous month. On board were the captain of the ship, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia, as well as seven crew members. Now, they are all gone.

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 Design

The 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.

My Recommendation

You and your children will enjoy learning about the Mary Celeste and coming up with your own explanations. It's not often young readers have the opportunity to learn some history, increase their vocabulary, gain experience in problem solving, and enjoy an intriguing story all at the same time, particularly in a book that is only 32 pages long). I highly recommend The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History for ages 8-12, as well as younger and older kids who enjoy history and mysteries. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1999. ISBN: 9780689851223)

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