Green Tick : The DNA Detectives – To Catch a Thief, and the sequel, The Smuggler's Daughter

Green Tick Evaluation

The DNA Detectives: To Catch a Thief

Author: Mandy Hartley
Publisher: SJH Publishing
ISBN 978-1-906670-50-4
Publication date: 28/09/2017
Format: Paperback
Age: 7-12

The DNA Detectives: The Smugglers Daughter

Author: Mandy Hartley
Publisher: SJH Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-1906670597
Publication date: 28/09/2018
Format: Paperback
Age: 7-12


Author Mandy Hartley is passionate about teaching children about DNA. Her background in science and DNA has enabled her to create these two stories, which teach children all about DNA in a context. 

Her two books: How to Catch a Thief and The Smuggler’s Daughter are about two children who use their knowledge of DNA to solve crimes. They are stories suitable for both primary and Year 7 (age 12) pupils. Both books are fast-paced and easy to read, and the reader does not have to read the first book in order to read the second. However, I found it useful to do so, as the second book includes additional and more detailed information about DNA. There is no gender bias, so both books would interest girls and boys, especially as the main characters are brother and sister. 

Throughout the books, there are lovely black and white sketches, which help the reader understand the stories. These can also be used to help pupils indentify how to record scientific information.

“These books fit in with different aspects of the National Curriculum (England) programmes of study for English and Science for Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 5-11)”

How the books support the science curriculum

 These books fit in with different aspects of the National Curriculum (England) programmes of study for English and Science for Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 5-11).

For primary teachers, the books provide an excellent way to teach children about DNA and support learning about classification, also helping with understanding about evolution and inheritance. In How to Catch a Thief, the characters create an electromagnet and so would be suitable for learning about electricity for Years 4 and 6 (ages 9 and 11).

In secondary schools, the books can be used to teach about genetics.

They can also be used as the basis for a transition project for Years 6 to 7 (ages 11 to 12), and primary teachers could collaborate with their secondary colleagues to carry out some of the investigations in a secondary setting.

Children can build up a range of scientific vocabulary, including such words/terms as ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ (DNA), ‘inheritance’, ‘cell’, ‘polydactyl’, ‘cytoplasm’, ‘electromagnet’, ‘chromosome’, and ‘DNA profile’ from reading both books.  There are explanations in the stories about a laboratory and rules about safety when working as a scientist; for example:

‘Then they put on gloves and facemasks, so they didn’t contaminate the samples with their own DNA.’

The books also feature the important steps that a scientist needs to take when working methodically:

‘The first thing we need to do is print out labels for the samples.’

The author cleverly uses characters from the book to explain scientific techniques. For example, the steps in using a DNA extraction kit are carefully explained by the character Annabelle.

“The books are full of questions that children can try to answer, such as What is DNA? Who is the pet thief? Who stole the treasure?”

The author also uses analogies such as ‘DNA as the instructions for making a Lego model, a bag for a cell and bubble wrap with its bubble bits like little cells full of jelly called cytoplasm, chromosomes as instruction booklets.’

In The Smuggler’s Daughter, the author includes further information on DNA, including an explanation of the 46 chromosomes as well as of the DNA sequence. The Human Genome Project is mentioned and there is reference to mutations such as Polydactyl (having an extra finger or toe). She features an excellent idea for showing children the DNA sequence using jelly baby sweets, a simple idea that can be carried out in the classroom:

‘They all watched as Mum threaded six of the jelly baby heads onto the cocktail stick.’

Both books include fantastic weblinks developed by the author with the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, which allow children to access the book from home and school as well offering a range of activities and resources including videos for pupils showing the comparison of hairs and fibres and an explanation of the X and Y chromosome. Other activities include making DNA bracelets, extracting DNA from fruit and printing out DNA evidence to solve a crime about stolen dogs. All these can be carried out in the classroom, as well as set for home learning and accessed from home (Link).

The books are full of questions that children can try to answer, such as What is DNA? Who is the pet thief? Who stole the treasure? Children will be interested to find out who ‘did the crime’ and how it was solved. This is definitely a way to get children interested in forensic science. Teachers can introduce the characters to pupils and then plan a whole science day, particularly for Years 5 or 6, based on ‘solving the crime’. 

Throughout the books, children learn ‘Working Scientifically’ skills such as asking and answering questions and identifying scientific evidence to support an argument.

Schools in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire have access to a live workshop, which is science- and literacy-based. This is an excellent idea and would definitely motivate children. The books can also be used as a whole learning topic for the term, with links to science, English (see below), history and geography. 

How the books support the English curriculum 

Both books can be used within English lessons and linked to areas of the English curriculum. How to Catch a Thief uses simple language. The only challenging vocabulary is found in the scientific words and concepts.

In The Smuggler’s Daughter, there is more evidence of descriptive vocabulary and phrases, for example:

‘The ship creaked and groaned as water filled the lower decks…’

The books can be used for higher-achieving pupils in Year 2 (age 7) as a way to focus on grammar, including the use of contractions and using speech marks in dialogue.

Pupils can do a range of writing and reading task linked to the books. Newspaper articles can be written about the crimes and how they were solved. In How to Catch a Thief, at the end of the story the characters mention how they are both in the newspaper for solving the crime:

‘DNA DETECTIVES CATCH PET THIEF’. Pupils could create their own headlines,write diary entries ‘in role’ as the characters, or story map/sequence the story using a range of conjunctions. They could even create their own crime to be solved. 

The books lend themselves to non-fiction writing and pupils could write a set of instructions on how to extract DNA or an information report on using DNA as evidence. 

Teachers may choose to read these books as class texts or as a ‘hook’ for a science topic. 


The DNA Detectives series of books are fictional stories with a non-fiction science element. They are suitable for both primary and lower secondary pupils and have links with both the English and science curricula. All the resources, such as weblinks, activities and printable resources are easily available for teachers to access. Both books are easy to read, with short chapters. They can be read independently by pupils, or chosen as a class text. There are cross-curricular links with science, English, history and geography, making these books a good resource for teachers to use across a topic. The author has shown the importance of DNA in our everyday lives.  To conclude, the DNA Detectives series comprises exciting stories that can truly inspire children to have a love of science!