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Monday, March 23, 2015

Two quirky books for middle school nerds (and other people who like to read)

Stewart, Trenton Lee (2009) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma.  New York;  Little Brown

Opening lines:  "In a city called Stonetown, on the third floor of an old, grey-stoned house, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was considering his options.  He was locked inside an uncomfortably warm room, and the only way out was to make an unpleasant decision."

The Mysterious Benedict Society is back.  Once again they are squaring off against the evil Ledroptha Curtain and his nefarious Ten Men (who use office supplies to threaten and maim with remarkable cruelty.)  This time, though, the trouble begins when there is a blackout in Stonetown and Curtain and his men steal the Whisperer, the device that nearly allowed Curtain to take control of the entire world in the first book.  Before long the members of the society find themselves captured and held in an old prison in an unknown location.  Can even their remarkable intelligence, talents, and resourcefulness allow them to escape and get word to Mr. Benedict in time to save the world again?

Once again, Steward has crafted a gripping mystery that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to figure out the secret messages, traps, and codes along with the society.  That makes it sound like this is some kind of thin libretto to allow for educational opportunities in the book.  It isn't.  It is a rip-roaring story that doesn't talk down to the brilliance within every kid. 

This book is probably ideal for late fifth grade and up.  You don't have to read the previous two books in the trilogy, but the book would be more fun if you did.  Math teachers may find some good material in here to teach logic, and English teachers may be able to use some of the word-play in lessons, but really it is just a good book that would go well in your class library.  There is nothing objectionable in this books (unless you are deeply morally opposed to seeing office supplies used as weapons, then you might want to take a pass.)

Bosch, Pseudonymous (2009) This Book is not Good For You.  New York:  Little Brown.

Opening Lines:
"Mmmm...mmmmm......good snap...melts smoothly on the tongue...a hint of blackberry...yet earthy underneath...mmm...yes...strong note of...cinnamon and -- is it cardamom?  Or maybe licorice?... velvety mouth-feel ...not too sweet ... lovely finissh...mmm...must have another...Aaaaaaaaaak...!
      "Oh.  It's you.
     "Thank goodness.
      "For a second I thought it was -- well, never mind what I thought.
      "The question is, what am I going to do with you?"

That gives you a taste of the intrusive narrator's voice.  Like all the books in this series, This Book is not Good For You is a wild ride where you cannot trust the narrator ever.  And some pages are ripped out or scribbled over, or redacted.  If that sounds frustrating, it isn't.  A strong story threads through the whole book.  It is up to Max-Ernest and Cass to figure out a complicated plot involving a lot of food (particularly chocolate), a zoo, and a whole lot of collateral trivia.  Is the story good?  Yes,  Are the characters interesting?  Yes.  Will fifth graders and up like it?  Yes, especially the quirky ones. 

Can I use it in my language arts classroom to teach point of view?  Sure, but that would be kind of like using the back of one of Monet's haystack paintings as a blackboard to teach students the shading necessary on a foreshortened circle.  Is there anything objectionable in the book?  Nope (and if there were, adults wouldn't be clever enough to find it.)  It is a good book. 

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