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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reynie Muldoon is a clever, talented, and well-read young man, which makes him a bit of an outcast at the orphanage where he lives. He's outgrown the schooling they offer, and the man in charge refuses to let him go to an advanced school, so he has a tutor-- and he and Miss Perumal spend their mornings reading the newspaper together and conversing in Tamil, which she is teaching him. One morning, they spot an ad in the paper addressed to talented children and offering "special opportunities." They are both excited by this, so Reynie goes to take the first in a series of tests to see what this mysterious opportunity might be. Reynie is the only child from his group to make it through the first round of testing, and then there are some odd circumstances surrounding the second test-- a girl who lost her pencil down the grate and who claims to have the answers to the test; after the very difficult test, which turns out to be a kind of puzzle (Reynie figures it out in part because he follows the directions carefully), Reynie meets two other children who have been through this series of tests, and when they compare notes Reynie figures out that the lost pencil and offers of cheating are also a strange part of this test. Finally, after a few more strange tests, they meet Mr. Benedict and are told why he recruited the four of them (the fourth lagged behind), and what it is he hopes they will help them with-- which is where they adventure really begins.

Mr. Benedict has identified hidden messages in the TV and radio broadcasts that are affecting most members of the society (he and his young recruits are not yet affected because they have an "unusually powerful love of truth," and thus their minds resist it), and he has determined that a child's voice is being used to send the message in a way that adults will not reject the message. This is the cause of the vague "Emergency" that society is obsessed with (frequently referenced in the newspapers), and Mr. Benedict says people are missing but because of a message about the missing only being "departed", those in authority are not concerned and won't listen to Mr. Benedict's warnings. Mr. Benedict has also figured out that the messages are being sent from the "Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened" on Nomansan Island. So, he asks his young recruits to go undercover as new students and figure out what is going on, and hopefully help him disrupt the plans of whoever it is that is sending these messages.

The book is full of little puzzles and riddles along the way, starting with the tests at the very beginning, which is very fun because they are presented in a way that the reader can also try to puzzle them out. The children communicate with Mr. Benedict and his small team using Morse code, and they get intentionally cryptic messages in reply-- in case anyone else intercepts the message-- but sometimes this means the children must puzzle over the answers. The other thing that I loved about this book is that the four children are so very different-- but all quite special and intelligent, and each essential to their mission succeeding. Reynie is great at puzzles and riddles and figuring things out; but his new friend Sticky has incredible retention (hence his nickname: everything "sticks")-- he reads everything, including encyclopedias, and remembers everything he reads. When they initially compare notes about the second, very tricky test they took, Sticky is embarrassed that he wasn't able to finish the test in time, but Reynie is amazed that Sticky actually knew the answers to the incredibly vague questions, which Reynie didn't know but figured out by the puzzle-like way the test was structured. Kate Weatherall is much more physical and athletic than either of the two boys; she carries around a pail with rope, magnets, flashlights, and other various useful things and she's quite clever with how she uses them. And the fourth member of the group, Constance Contraire is small and quite contrary-- sometimes even the other children aren't quite sure about her, although she does make the occasional contribution (she's the one who names the group), but they keep her along because Mr. Benedict insisted they could only succeed as a team of four. In the end, of course, her very obstinacy and contrariness is essential to their success. The differences between the children are clearly demonstrated by the details of the way each of them tackles the tests, puzzles, and mazes that they are given before they meet Mr. Benedict-- they each solve it in a completely different way, which is why they make such a great team together.

A delightful book with characters I would be glad to spend more time with. An engaging plot with a pretty satisfying resolution (while still leaving things open enough for sequels), along with some happy resolutions for these children who were pretty much on their own when Mr. Benedict recruited them. I'm a little older than the target audience, so I found it a little easier to solve the puzzles than a younger reader might, but that didn't detract much from the pleasure of the book. I also found the coded answer to a secret question unrelated to the plot long before I came across the answer it belonged to, but that was kind of fun, too.

Title:The Mysterious Benedict Society
Author:Trenton Lee Stewart
Date published:2007
Genre:Children's Literature
Series:Mysterious Benedict Society
Number of pages:485
Notes:recommended by Karen and Natalie


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