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Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing

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Nancy Drew meets Harriet the Spy in this action-packed and heartfelt debut middle grade following an overzealous amateur sleuth as she investigates a shocking family secret—and unravels the mystery of her developing feelings for girls.

Rule Your loyalty is to the case.

Amateur detective Pepper Blouse has always held true to this rule, even if it meant pushing people away. But when the results of Pepper’s latest case cost her any hope of the girl she likes returning her feelings, she decides that maybe she should lay low for a while.

That is, until her Great Aunt Florence passes away under mysterious circumstances. And even though her dad insists there’s nothing to investigate, Pepper can’t just ignore rule Trust your gut .

But there’s nothing in the rulebook that could’ve prepared her for the family secrets her investigation uncovers.

Maybe it’s time to stop playing by the rules.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published September 29, 2020

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About the author

Briana McDonald

6 books38 followers
Briana McDonald writes diverse and adventurous books for young readers. She is the author of middle grade novels Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing and The Secrets of Stone Creek with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She studied writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. When she’s not writing, Briana works at Columbia University and lives in New York City with her wife and their dog, Rex.

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5 stars
64 (29%)
4 stars
100 (46%)
3 stars
39 (18%)
2 stars
9 (4%)
1 star
4 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 55 reviews
Profile Image for Jenna (Falling Letters).
647 reviews58 followers
January 9, 2022
Review originally published 9 January 2022 at Falling Letters.

Pepper considers herself an amateur detective – she strives to follow the rulebook her deceased detective mother left. So when her great aunt passes away unexpectedly and Pepper sets out with her dad to pack up said aunt’s grand estate in a small town, Pepper sees this an opportunity to put her skills to the test even though the adults around her insist there’s nothing to be investigated.

But there is! Pepper’s suspicious of her estranged aunt and cousin, who are also packing up the estate, and the story develops into a true murder mystery. The plot doesn’t hinge on the protagonist’s naivety of adult matters. Three cheers for a middle grade mystery that has a real mystery and not just some child’s misunderstanding of a grown up situation! The story builds to high stakes danger and explores the question of what it means to do anything for your family.

The pace picks up around 100 pages in. Until then, I was uncertain whether the story would feature a geniune mystery. But I found the latter half of the book a gripping read and I blazed through it. The mystery’s legit. The story builds into a page turner.

Pepper’s Rules also has LGBTQ+ content: Pepper’s recently realized she may have a crush on a girl from school. She wonders how that might affect her relationship with her dad. Jacob, a local boy Pepper befriends who helps with her sleuthing, is transgender. Both of these facts are incidental to the primary plot. I’d say Jacob worrying about the impending birth of his little sister (because maybe she’ll be the daughter his parents always wanted) receives more significant page time than Pepper’s crush. (I will say I was a wee bit disappointed when great aunt was not revealed to be a lesbian.)

The Bottom Line 💭: Compared to classics Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew, Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing is a welcome addition to the genre of middle grade contemporary mysteries.
Profile Image for lyraand.
215 reviews36 followers
September 30, 2020
This was uncomfortably pro-cop - not just in passing but pervasively, repeatedly, and explicitly. Other than that, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it if you are willing and able to compartmentalize, or, like, pretend the book is set in an alternate universe, cop-wise. I can see how to some extent this made artistic sense - the protagonist, Pepper, loves solving mysteries, so it's an obvious choice for her hero (her late mom) to be a professional detective. The book actually has a good opportunity to complicate the "cops are heroes" narrative: another character is upset over the possibility that his mom might have done something terrible, and Pepper thinks, "Even though my mom's not around, I've never had to question my memory of her, or who she was when she was alive." Perfect time to then make Pepper question the memory of her cop mom! But the book totally misses this opportunity and doesn't go there at all. I'm not saying the book should have been like "SURPRISE her beloved mom was a bloodthirsty monster." I'm just saying it would have fit right in, thematically, for Pepper to start doubting whether her mom was as perfect as Pepper thinks she was, to wonder if her mom ever did things that Pepper doesn't know about and wouldn't like if she knew.

I did not guess the solution to the mystery, and I stayed up too late reading it, so props for that. In many ways this is the kind of queer middle grade I've been wanting to see more of - fun and commercial (albeit with some dead mom feelings), where the queerness is incidental. Books like Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World and King and the Dragonflies are wonderful and important (in fact Ivy Aberdeen is a personal favorite), but they do strike me as perhaps the type of middle grade that appeals more to adults than to kids (just my guess as an adult reader who doesn't have kids). I think I would have really liked this book in 3rd-5th grade. Just, if kids in your life read this book, have a conversation with them about how cops in real life are a lot more complicated and not so heroic as they're portrayed here.

Rep: main character is a cis white girl who seems likely to identify as bi or pan someday but who is currently just questioning and not ready for any labels; another major character is a trans boy. The word "transgender" is used on the page, as well as the word "deadname" (nobody's deadname is actually specified/revealed, but the concept is explained). IIRC no sexual orientation labels (gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, etc.) are used at all in any context. It's not my place to decide how good or bad the trans rep was, but just as an FYI, the protagonist tells the trans character, "I never would have known [that you were trans]" and the trans character reacts positively to this comment (to any cis readers who are unaware, it is generally not recommended that you say this to a trans person).
Profile Image for Kristin Lambert.
Author 1 book90 followers
March 26, 2020
A charming, twisty mystery that I think would be especially great for kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum. I read so much Nancy Drew from age 8 to 10, and this definitely gives me a similar vibe, mystery-wise, but with modern sensibilities and stronger characterization. The three kids at the center of this story feel very whole and real, and are all grappling with big emotions. I loved the running theme of kindness and learning how to see things from another person’s perspective. I also LOVED the representation of queer characters, whose experiences were handled with so much warmth and nuance. Highly recommended for young mystery fans!
Profile Image for Brooke.
537 reviews289 followers
April 12, 2020
This is a smartly written middle-grade mystery that is perfect for wannabe-detectives. The author manages to pack in all sorts of great stuff, including dealing with loss, figuring out a sense of self, and learning to see things from other people's perspectives. The main character has a strong voice and a really determined personality and was really fun to spend a few hours with. Highly recommended for mystery fans of all ages.
Profile Image for Heatherblakely.
1,161 reviews7 followers
October 10, 2020
i really liked this and loved watching pepper work through some of her grief about her mom (who died when pepper was little) as well as her sexuality. the kids at school think she’s weird/don’t like her because of her sleuthing, and the first friend she makes at her great aunt’s is a trans boy and she also ends up with more sympathy for her whiny cousin by the end of the book. lots of good friendship stuff. my only hangup is that her mom was a cop. a detective, but called a cop several times and ehhh i kind of wish she were a PI or something instead.
Profile Image for Frances.
41 reviews
February 28, 2020
Nancy Drew but make her queer!!!!!!

This book is everything I wish I had when I was in middle school.
Profile Image for Nicole Melleby.
Author 10 books199 followers
February 3, 2020
Official blurb: McDonald has crafted a middle grade mystery for a modern audience, a debut chock full of heart that perfectly fills a much needed category for LGBTQ middle grade shelves. Pepper isn't just a queer Nancy Drew--she's a relatable and lovable character all her own.
Profile Image for Neha Thakkar .
418 reviews9 followers
August 7, 2020
This book has the best earnest, eager, and hopeful main character who needs to solve the mystery. And maybe even keep her mom’s memory alive? I enjoyed this middle grade novel full of humor and heart!
Profile Image for Shriya Uday.
239 reviews12 followers
August 27, 2021
Pretty solid middle grade novel with tense plot beats and well deserved emotional moments. I really enjoyed the friendship between Pepper and Jacob, it was well written, had it's ups and downs and handles as importantly as a romantic relationship would have been. This was a nice novel to read after all the heavy stuff I've been reading recently
Profile Image for Steph.
4,470 reviews48 followers
November 9, 2020
A middle grade mystery with lots of heart! Absolutely love that last page...
“... write my own rules, starting exactly where hers left off. I’m not sure what they’ll be yet. But when inspiration strikes, I won’t be afraid to put ink on Mom‘s pages - to carry on her legacy with a fresh, new story of my own.”
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Laura.
615 reviews25 followers
April 5, 2022
This is a very cute Nancy-Drew/Harriet-the-Spy-esque mystery with a queer main character and trans side character. It's sweet and a quick read, although the mystery isn't super intense until the end. I'm def recommending this for my library for the mystery section.
Profile Image for Kim Tyo-Dickerson.
422 reviews15 followers
December 11, 2022
Fun yet suprisingly deep Nancy Drew styled middle grade mystery starring queer characters, a mysteriously dead Great-Aunt, questions about inheriting the family fortune, enigmatic neighbors and families on all sides struggling with loss and grief. Recommended for readers ages 10 and up.
Profile Image for Tanya.
Author 4 books94 followers
March 27, 2020
I just finished PEPPER'S RULES FOR SECRET SLEUTHING and I absolutely adored it! Reading this gave me some serious nostalgia for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries I used to read as a kid. Except in this case, the mystery is all there with the added benefit of a modern upgrade. I especially appreciated the queer rep, which was done with so much nuance and care. Pepper is also the kind of MG main character that I love, smart, kind, inquisitive and determined. This would be a perfect read for 9-11 year olds; I really think it'll hit that sweet spot for that age group. Highly recommend this fun and mysterious story!
463 reviews2 followers
November 14, 2020
Yay queer MC!

I struggled to focus on reading this book, but in 2020, it's hard to fault a book for that.

Great secondary character trans rep! Yay! I appreciated his concern that his parents were a little *too* happy to have a girl. I only wish the word "brave" hadn't been on p. 222. That dang word. Even "courageous" would have been better. Why do trans people always have to be "brave"?
Profile Image for Rebecca.
144 reviews
October 9, 2021
This one was cute. I didn't love it, but it's middle grade which means that I'm not the target audience *at all*, so I didn't want to take off points just because I was mildly annoyed when the children... acted like children. That seems dumb.

Characters are all very cute, it's a very cute story about Pepper learning to move on from her mom who died and trying to navigate how she feels about having a crush on a girl. The murder mystery part was fine- again, that part is probably going to be a lot more enjoyable for children than it was for me, because that is who it is written for.

I liked Jacob a lot, he was really great. I wish we had gotten to see more of Andrew, and see him becoming actual friends with Pepper and Jacob- it felt like they got to a point where they could tolerate each other, but Andrew's whole thing is that he's lonely because his parents suck and don't care about him, so I would've liked it a lot more if he had gained some actual close friends over the course of the story. I just felt like they didn't quite get there. So that's the main reason I took off a star.

All in all it's a cute middle grade and I really liked how they explored Jacob's and Pepper's personal stories and journeys and anxieties- I thought it was really well done, but it wasn't the main focus of the story, and I thought it was balanced well with all the other things going on. I wouldn't recommend this to an adult- there are definitely middle grade books I would recommend to an adult, but this isn't one of them. Not really for me, but I don't think that's a fault of the book necessarily.
Profile Image for Melanie Dulaney.
1,371 reviews66 followers
April 14, 2021
Pepper is as feisty as her name and her poofy, flaming red hair and she’s on the trail of a murderer, possibly someone in her own family! Her dad’s Aunt Florence has seemingly passed away from a heart attack and there is a bit of confusion about the will—who will inherit the money and the mansion? It could be her dad, his sister, or maybe even a gardener? Or are these very same people suspects in what is not a natural death? Determined to honor the memory of her mom’s outstanding performance as a police detective, Pepper is following every rule recorded in her Detective Handbook and hopes to solve a few personal mysteries in her life as well. The mystery portion of Briana McDonald’s book has some interesting twists and turns and manages to create a whole list of possible suspects. However, some of the personal dilemmas presented seem somewhat contrived. Pepper is trying to decide if what she feels for classmate Ashley is friendship or something more. New friend and fellow detective Jacob is transgender and is worried that his parents are having a baby girl in order to replace the girl they thought they already had. Cousin Andrew is spoiled, whiny and suffering from the abandonment of his father. There is a budding romance for Pepper’s dad with Andrew’s tutor and an elderly neighbor with Alzheimer’s. All these situations are realistic, but may be a little more than what is needed in just one book. Target age group is likely grades 4-6. ARC provided by Simon and Schuster Kids.
Profile Image for Ashley.
1,405 reviews19 followers
May 28, 2021
I liked the way the trans content was handled, to a point. I still think parents who celebrate the sex of their unborn second child after their first child has come out as trans are awful people and you can't convince me otherwise. The adults in general in this book are terrible, but it's mostly because of the writing. Pepper's dad wants to talk to her about dating someone new, and Pepper avoids it so he doesn't come find her later to talk to her? And why did he leave her in the house alone? He was not good. It was also wild that . And it felt like the editor must have said that queer kids in middle grade fiction were in right now, so the author went in and every 50 pages or so made a reference to "this mystery of my feelings for Ashley." Corny as well as superficial. I would not consider this representation.

I wouldn't recommend it out of hand, but I wouldn't recommend not reading it if someone was so inclined. It's not a terrible mystery, and there is a trans boy best friend.
Profile Image for Victoria M.
67 reviews
November 5, 2020
As many have stated before me, this book was right up there with Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I love the rules, I love the mystery, and when it picks up and the real suspense starts, I LOVE IT! The author, Briana McDonald, takes on very difficult topics for youth in such a beautiful way, including loss of family members, divorce, transitioning and acceptance, just to name a few. These are neither treaded on lightly nor haphazardly thrown it, these topics are part of the characters as much as they would be part of any real world kid and makes these character feel all the more real. They develop gradually and we as readers see these characters grow past their problems and come to solutions, and mature thoughts. The mystery it self, oh boy, was throwing me for so many loops and unlike many books I've read, the ending was not predictable. Just when you think you have it solved, bam, a new piece of evidence to keep you on your toes and reevaluating your theory! Overall I can tell this will be a book I will be telling other readers about and suggesting to anyone up for the task of reading a brilliant mystery.
Profile Image for Laurie Hnatiuk.
376 reviews
August 3, 2021
I am using a new review format. You can find few more details about 5-4-3-2-1 here.

5 - Sentence Summary
Pepper and her father are visiting his Aunt Florence's mansion after recently passing away to help his sister put her affairs in order. Pepper's aunt (her dad's sister) and cousin Andrew are staying at the mansion after the recent divorce of her aunt and settling into a very different life. Pepper, too, is still adjusting after her mom died on duty as a police detective, and wants to follow in her footsteps and carries her mom's rules for detective work on her at all times, and looks for cases to investigate in her everyday life. Pepper thinks her great aunt died under suspicious circumstances and believes her aunt and Andrew are hiding something. With a new neighbourhood friend Jacob, the two embark on a dangerous path to find out exactly what happened to her great aunt and what is going on in the mansion.

For further details, please refer to this GoodReads Link.

4 - Opinions
It is great to see more and more books where we have transgender characters, and that's all we need to know - just like we know if the character is a sibling or only child. It is simply information about the character, and the fact that they are transgender is not an integral part of the story. We need more books like this, please. Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing is one of those rare books where a murder has taken place, instead of the all too mundane cases such as looking for a missing pet. This age group wants something with an edge, and Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing will provide readers with that tension they desire.
Not only does this mystery have an edge, but it is a sophisticated one with plot twists that readers may be surprised at or not see coming, keeping them turning the pages. Finally, the characters are well developed and relevant, especially with Pepper questioning the "crushes" that she is experiencing and wondering about herself and how to share that with her dad. I really enjoyed this book, and readers will too if they get past the book cover. The cover is deceiving, coming off like it would be more light-hearted rather than suspenseful.
Profile Image for Nicole Bohr.
211 reviews7 followers
December 11, 2020
I absolutely love the cover and every time I stare at it, I keep finding other small details.

With that said...I enjoyed that Andrew came around and wanted to help Pepper solve the mystery, even if he’s torn between solving the mystery or continuing to live his lavish life style.

Pepper was adorable. I never read any of the Nancy Drew novels but I imagine a young sleuth would be her. I felt sad that she’s struggling with the loss of her mom. I loved how she was different and still stuck to sleuthing regardless that her classmates make fun of her.

As for Jacob, my heart ached for him. I will never understand what he was going through but I’m glad that Pepper accepted him for who he truly is.

Furthermore...the story was cute but I think Pepper was more focused on her mother’s death and feeling like she couldn’t ever achieve solving cases without her mother’s Detective Rule book, and that I get took away from the story/mystery a bit.
Profile Image for Mel.
272 reviews12 followers
August 1, 2021
An okay children's mystery with higher than usual stakes than the usual missing item or ancient riddle. Suffers from the very common pitfall of the children refusing to tell an adult about the crime and endangering themselves instead for the sake of the plot. It's extra frustrating because one of them goes to a therapist to uncover information about a clue but won't disclose that it's related to a murder. The main protagonist sleeps in an abandoned car after her dad has been kidnapped rather than tell anybody he's missing with obvious evidence of foul play. Some readers won't mind that, but to me it made the continued tension feel forced and the characters seem callous in their handling of the situation.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Katy.
605 reviews6 followers
June 11, 2022
The strengths of this middle grade novel are that it frankly (but age-appropriately) discusses topics like gender identity and beginning to understand sexual orientation, and also discussing topics like grief of losing a parent either to death or divorce/abandonment. So, as you can tell, there are a lot of heavy topics in this book... and what didn't work for me is that it felt like the heavy topics were wrapped in a sugary coating of a murder mystery (and the book is positioned/marketed as the latter). For me, the book would have worked better as a contemporary novel exploring these kids figuring all these things out, rather than a half-baked, plot-driven mystery with long interludes of heavy (and heavy-handed) exposition.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,318 reviews8 followers
January 18, 2021
Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing brings some much-needed queer rep to the middle-grade mystery world. Pepper's questioning, as well as a major character who is trans, are both portrayed thoughtfully and respectfully. Unfortunately, I found the writing style a bit inconsistent, and the way an older adult with dementia was portrayed struck me as somewhat insensitive at times. I also found the plot a bit confusing, though maybe I'm just not familiar enough with the conventions of the genre. Interested to see what else this author writes, though!
6 reviews
April 26, 2021
Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing is an absolutely adorable middle-grade mystery that will delight readers of all ages. A Nancy Drew for the modern age, Pepper is immediately relatable, as her detective skills are put to the test in order to investigate the strange circumstances of her great-aunt’s passing. Pepper’s story also includes issues of family, friendship, and the struggle to fit in that make for an engaging romp that will keep readers guessing the whole way.
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