• Allison Diehl

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History (Review)

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Interest Level: Ages 6 - 10+

Authors: Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple

Illustrator: Roger Roth

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2002

Reading Level: Lexile AD840

Pages: 32

Retail: $7.99, paperback

Summary: The true story of the Mary Celeste, a ship found abandoned in 1872 floating 600 miles west of Portugal. A young girl from today invites the reader to become a detective and try to solve the mystery of what happened. In the end, there is no conclusive answer.

When my son was 10, I read this book to him as a bedtime story. After I tucked him him in, he ran to my room over and over with different ideas about what happened to the crew and passengers on the Mary Celeste. He was so excited about the story, he asked me to find more books about ghost ships. We also sought out Yolen's other unsolved mystery books (Roanoake, The Salem Witch Trials, and The Wolf Girls), but The Mary Celeste remained his favorite.

Full disclosure: Jane Yolen is one of my favorite children's book authors. We are fortunate that she is a prolific writer and a skilled wordsmith. Even when writing the prose in The Mary Celeste, she creates text that flows off the tongue as verse. There are no rhymes, but the sentence structure and the layout on the page makes this book extremely easy to read aloud, even as she introduces rare words and new vocabulary terms.

Each spread in this book has a similar layout with the main text in large yellow boxes, and additional facts on an illustrated spiral notebook (detective style). Special terms are defined on little drawn "sticky notes." Toward the end, a map of the Atlantic Ocean is provided with a timeline of the ship leaving the port in New York, its final log entry at the Azores, and the location it was discovered by the crew of another ship, the Dei Gratia.

The next to final spread lists some of the more common theories of what led to the abandonment of the ship. After each hypothesis, a series of simple questions challenges the reader to evaluate it. Readers are also invited to come up with new ideas of what might have happened.

Roth's artwork is realistic, but the renderings have a soft-edged quality that feels somewhat historical, and perhaps a bit dated. (This book is nearly 20 years old). I didn't find them to be particularly memorable, but that is because they are well balanced with the storyline and don't compete for attention. I appreciate the artist's skill with drawing and watercolor. He makes it look easy.

The Mary Celeste is one of those rare picture books that is as engaging (perhaps more) for older children as it is for younger ones. For online learning, this would make an excellent read aloud to be followed by journaling and/or discussion. It's also a great choice to read at home to siblings of different ages. Just take my advice: don't read it at bedtime, or they may want to stay up all night solving the mystery!

This book is available from Bookshop.org

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