Monthly Archives: March 2008

“The Mysterious Benedict Society” by Trenton Lee Stewart


With the huge disclaimer right up front that I am not a fantasy fan, I found "The Mysterious Benedict Society" to be all sorts of awesome! Given that level of enthusiasm, providing a basic plot outline — four children who answer a newspaper ad promising "special opportunities" form a secret team that tries to saves the world from a brainwashing campaign — fails to capture the essence of this sometimes silly, sometimes touching, always fun book.

Our hero (well, if an 11 year old can be a hero, which I answer with an emphatic yes) is Reynie Muldoon, an orphan who's a whiz at solving complicated puzzles. Reynie is also brave and clever in an unassuming way, and, under Mr. Benedict's care, he becomes the leader of the Society, which is basically just a small group of kids with diverse talents and heaps of old-fashioned gumption. The other members of the Society are the bald genius George "Sticky" Washington, so named for his amazing recall of facts; Kate Weatherall, a tough girl with a bucket full of handy tools; and the tiny, petulant Constance Contraire, who sleeps and complains with equal vigor.

The children pose as students at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.) on secluded Nomansan Island, hoping to discover Institute head Ledroptha Curtain's (hee!) exact plans for his nefarious Whisperer device (hint: it involves world domination, of course). While on the island, the kids snoop around in places they have no right to be, meet under cover of darkness each night, communicate with Mr. Benedict and his friends using morse code (with a flashlight!), and narrowly escape danger time and time again. Cool, right?

The great thing about "The Mysterious Benedict Society," aside from all the neat spying and sleuthing by a resourceful band of kids, is the winning combination of humor and emotion that plays out here. The kids bond as true friends, revealing vulnerability, courage, and heart at wholly unexpected yet incredibly touching moments. All this tender feeling is nicely counterbalanced by humorous interludes, offbeat illustrations, wry insights, and often laugh-out-loud descriptions. If the plot becomes a bit convoluted, particularly as Mr. Curtain's schemes are revealed in more depth, it's easy enough to overlook. The story itself is so unfailingly enjoyable, with thrills, secrets, sly jokes, and emotion to spare, that most middle school readers — even those non-fantasy folks like me! — should adore it. Look for the sequel, "The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey" in late May. Enjoy!

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Posted by on March 26, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Miracle Wimp” by Erik Kraft


Erik Kraft's "Miracle Wimp" is composed of a series of short journal entries accompanied by hand drawn, goofy illustrations. In this sense, it reminded me of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," and Gary Paulsen's "The Amazing Life of Birds." I must say that I love this merging of a traditional text-based novel with comic elements, and I hope it continues. I think it's a great way to get reluctant readers interested in reading … and it makes the book absolutely fly by!

"Miracle Wimp" is Tom Mayo's personal, often hilarious journal of his sophomore year in high school. Tom, whose last name and geeky nature have earned him the title nickname, seems like a smart, funny, fairly normal kid. He's just not as tough or popular as the group of powerful jocks he labels the "Donkeys." It's these boys who are prone to doling out insults, pranks, gym class beatings, and atomic wedgies on any unsuspecting nerds. Tom mostly steers clear of them, although he has no choice but to mingle with the Donkeys in Mr. Boort's somewhat bizarre Wood Shop class.

This is a very slim novel that most middle and high school boys should enjoy. As I mentioned, it has a fair share of biting humor, and the journal entries themselves are often only a few pages in length. Plus, drawings! As a bonus, Tom has some nice insights into the complexity of high school life, covering everything from an unexpectedly caring teacher; the bullying of a special ed student by other outcasts; the simple joys of driving around town with a friend; the absurdity of flag football; the sheer terror of calling a girl; and the ups and downs of having a first girlfriend. I was a bit jarred by how abruptly the journal ended, although I guess in retrospect Tom's journey is mostly complete by the time he attends the junior prom. Unless there's a sequel in store? I guess we'll all have to wait and see. In the meantime, although I should warn potential readers that there is a small amount of rough language, I can happily recommend this book. Please let us know if you like it!

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Posted by on March 17, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Wednesday Wars” by Gary D. Schmidt


Yeah, like every other librarian in the free world, I adored it. End of review. 🙂

Okay, in all seriousness, I loved "The Wednesday Wars" to a level that surprised even me. When it first came out and I read the description, I thought, ugh, the character is really named Holling Hoodhood? And it's historical fiction set during the Vietnam War with comedic elements and Shakespeare and the warm hearted nostalgia I associate with that old tv show "The Wonder Years"? Um, no thanks. But! I. Was. Wrong. Truly, I cannot imagine a better book for middle school readers.

Our story follows Holling's 7th grade school year, including his Wednesday afternoons with English teacher Mrs. Baker during which the two read and discuss the works of William Shakespeare. Mrs. Baker at first seems a bit stern and aloof, but we quickly learn that she's actually generous, empathetic, and, in her own way, funny and kind of cool. She challenges Holling to look more deeply into Shakespeare's text and savor the imagery, words, and themes. Mrs. Baker even wholeheartedly supports Holling's stage debut as the fairy Ariel in the town's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Yes, I said fairy. And did I also mention the yellow tights with feathers on the rear end that are sure to make Holling the laughingstock of Camillo Junior High?

Over the school year, we also see Holling's sweet friendship with Meryl Lee develop into something more, despite the fact that their fathers are fierce business rivals. Even better, we discover how deeply Holling cares for his older sister when her misguided plan to run off to California stalls in the Midwest and he must rescue her. That's what's great about "The Wednesday Wars": all the plentiful humor — about such things as evil rats in the classroom ceiling tiles, chalk dust covered cream puffs, and Doug Swieteck's older brother and the 8th grade penitentiary crowd — is balanced perfectly by genuine, heartfelt emotion. As distant as Holling's father is, Holling himself is warm, good hearted, and sincere in an authentic way. Holling is not a hero, but he and his friends manage to do the right thing more often than not, all while learning real, often touching lessons in the process. There are so many wonderful moments in Holling's story, when characters stand up for each other and reveal their hearts in small, lovely ways. The goofy humor will hook younger readers, but it's the honesty and quiet beauty of these scenes that will remain long after the book is finished.

As I said, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's got history, Shakespeare, friendship, baseball and moments that will make you giggle and perhaps give you a small lump in your throat. "The Wednesday Wars" has something for everyone, and I hope all you middle school readers will give it a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

PS – I listened to the audiobook of this story, and I have to give props (again!) to Joel Johnstone, who also narrated "Thirteen Reasons Why."

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Posted by on March 7, 2008 in Uncategorized


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