Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mysterious Benedict Society

Biblio Bits The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, Little Brown, 2007 (ISBN 9780316057776)

Reading Level/Interest Age 840 lexile/Ages 10+

Genre Adventure, Science Fiction, Mystery

Plot Summary
Reynie Muldoon is an eleven year-old orphan who sees the following advertisement in the newspaper: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" He pursues the unusual testing sessions which turn out to be designed to evaluate more than just book smarts. It turns out that only four children have been selected, though they each approached the tests in very different ways, and are met at their concluding test site by Mr. Benedict. A genius with an uncanny talent for mind-reading, Mr. Benedict has made a startling discovery: subliminal messages of puzzling nonsense and contradictions are being broadcast through the televisions of the masses. The villain behind this is none other than Ledopthra Curtain, entrepreneur and founder of the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E. or backwards, EVIL!). The children soon infiltrate the institute as students and must work together, drawing on each other's talents, to solve the mystery and stop this dastardly megalomaniac. Will they be able to thwart his plans without being discovered as spies?

Critical Evaluation
I'll tell you how much I liked this book: at a time in the semester when time is of the essence, I didn't just abandon this book after gathering the necessary information to write an informed post about it! I had to finish it, and plan to read the two sequels over the break between semesters. Stewart has created a clever, engaging, and tightly plotted story here, filled with the types of unlikely heroes that readers love rooting for, and some great vocabulary words along the way. Constance seems the least likely heroine: grumpy, prickly, rude, and often dull. Readers will enjoy puzzling about why Constance is even a part of this group; they may suspect that she has a big part to play. In fact, the book is filled with puzzles, large and small, that will engage readers along the way. There is just the right amount of emotional engagement with and empathy for the characters, mixed with humor, suspense, and adventure. The adults at L.I.V.E., including Mr. Curtain, may remind readers of Roald Dahl's adults: those most odious ones who think they know everything and condescend to children.

Reader's Annotation
Are four kids really capable of foiling a global plot to brainwash its citizens by thought-control messages in their TVs? (Wait a minute, is this realistic fiction?) They make an unlikely team of heroes but quickly infiltrate the headquarters of the mastermind and use their combined talents to puzzle out the solution.

Author Information
Trenton Lee Stewart was born in 1970 and graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He lives in Little Rock (AR) with his wife and two sons. He conceived of this, his debut novel, out of a chess riddle that randomly came to mind on his way to a restaurant. (Information from this author biography was found here and from the book jacket.)

Challenge issues
Oh come on. It's good, clean fun. Evil masterminds, genius orphans, friendship, cleverness. OK, I guess if you have a nose like a cucumber you might be offended by the description of Mr. Curtain's nose.

Booktalking Ideas
Stylistically, this book reminds me of the Series of Unfortunate Events (Snicket) books or The Willoughbys (Lowry, 2008). But I think I would approach a booktalk by emphasizing The Kids Saving The World (or at least making some necessary changes) theme of this book. It's pretty creepy to consider subliminal messages being piped out of our TVs (and not so far from the truth). Other titles that might fit in could be Holes (Sachar, 1998), Hoot (Hiasson, 2002), Chasing Vermeer (Balliett, 2004), and That Girl Lucy Moon (Timberlake, 2006).

Curriculum Ties
There are some ideas about problem-solving and teamwork in these pages. It would be interesting to have small groups of students consider how the team (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) work together, perhaps even through some role-playing. How does each one fulfill a role that benefits the group? Why did Mr. Benedict choose them as individuals, and why does he consider them the perfect team? And there is a lot to say about Constance---she is so enigmatic, disagreeable, awkward, and difficult. Why is she part of the team?

Why this book?
My almost-eleven year-old and some of his good friends really loved these books and just read the latest installment, so I thought I would give their recommendation a try.

Yes. This book is followed by: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008), and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma (2009).

MSBA Reading list 2008-2009; Booklist Editors' Choice Books for Youth, 2007; School Library Journal Best Books, 2007; ALA Notable Children's Books, 2008.

Rockport Public Library owns?

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