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5 Reasons You Should Read This Book: The Mysterious Benedict Society Series

19 Feb

Well, I intended to post a Seven Things on Friday, but I worked that day and all weekend…and I just can’t get my life together when I have to work. Also, it’s hard to write blog posts when you’re completely obsessed with a new book series. I had been meaning to read The Mysterious Benedict Society for some time since it was on the bestseller list for a year and it’s got such a fantastic title and cover art (I admittedly judge books by their covers all the time. Not sorry.) so when I finally started it a few weeks ago, I was hooked. Like, seriously hooked.

 

After reading the first book, I immediately jumped on the second, and then miraculously found the third in the book drop at work. Guys, you have no idea how serendipitous that is. The odds of me finding anything I was looking for in the book drop, much less a book I wanted but wasn’t specifically looking for in that location are so incredibly small it’s not even funny. I basically did a happy dance and there was great rejoicing. (“Yaaaay.”)

 

All that being said, I’m obsessed with this series and I don’t know anybody else who has read it, which is killing me because I’m desperate for someone to talk to about it! Never fear, I’ve forced it on as many friends as possible. And now I’ll force it on you!

 

 

 

 

The series focuses on a group of incredibly brilliant children who answer a newspaper advertisement promising extraordinary opportunities for gifted children willing to take a certain test. The four who pass make up the Mysterious Benedict Society. They are given the challenge of…well, saving the world. Now I won’t say more in regards to plot synopsis because there are really so many puzzles and mysteries that you should read for yourself. I refuse to give anything away!

 

The series, written by Trenton Lee Stewart, consists of three books – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma – and a prequel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. There’s also a puzzle book entitled Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums. Guys, titles alone should make you run to the library right now. I’m reading The Prisoner’s Dilemma and I can assure you that these books just keep getting better. Here are a few reasons you should read them!

 

1.) These books are just so clever. The tests and challenges that the children have to solve are really fun, in and of themselves. The books are filled with riddles and questions that must be answered in creative ways. This is a middle-grade series, but the material isn’t necessarily super-easy to solve. And any book that makes me run to the computer to figure out Morse Code is a winner.

Stewart also gets clever with character and location names in the series, which I love. You’ll meet a sailor named Captain Noland and visit places like Nomansan Island. I truly appreciate authors who take the time to creatively and sneakily clue readers in on character development. Once I figured out that some characters have revealing names, the entire book began to read like a code, which is just excellent.

 

 

2.) Stewart’s characters become the reader’s instant friends and instant foes. He establishes a world reminiscent of those created by Roald Dahl, populated by characters both bizarre and lovable. I easily developed a bond with the main characters and the villains are the best kind – the ones you love to hate.

The children who make up the Society are all orphans or runaways…or runaway orphans, in some cases. The group consists of bold, energetic Kate, nervous, but brilliant Sticky, continually grouchy Constance (who complains in verse and who’s full name is Constance Contraire…get it?) and Reynie who finds himself the leader of the group. Stewart does a great job of giving each of these characters personal baggage to work through, a task which can only be accomplished through the friendship and personal accomplishment they develop while mastering the challenges they face.

You’ll also meet characters like Mr. Benedict, Number Two, Cannonball, Rhonda Kazembe, Moochoo Brazos…and on and on. There is literally no end to the kooky companions and dastardly villains Stewart creates. I like a series in which the good are great and the bad are horrid and The Mysterious Benedict Society does not fail here. The bad guys are really, really creatively bad, which is exactly what you want in a series like this.

 

 

3.) These books are page-turners and the action sequences don’t disappoint. Good and bad are definitely at odds in this series, so at times the action can get suspenseful and a little scary. There are fight scenes and clever means of torture and many a sneak attack. The books read like a really great action movie with lots of close calls and impossible-to-escape show downs. Stewart does a great job of leaving details to our imaginations so that it doesn’t get unnecessarily frightening, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a little nervous while reading these books. These would make great read-aloud books for classrooms, too, because lots of chapters end with cliff-hangers and students would eat that up. Or hate you for it. Mwuahahaha.

 

 

4.) Adults treat children as people valued for their talents and deserving of respect. One of my big hang ups with the world is that many times kids are treated like second-class citizens just because of their age. And that’s just dumb. In The Mysterious Benedict Society children are encouraged to draw their own conclusions and given space to make their own decisions while being guided by loving adults. They are trusted to do the right thing and they are put in situations and environments in which their gifts will thrive. The children are loved despite, and sometimes because of, their weaknesses. Even perpetually grouchy Constance, who very well may be my favorite character, finds acceptance and a healthy outlet for her emotions in these books.

 

 

5.) The value system in this series is on point. Nobility, cleverness, honesty, and justice are honored and, while the main characters all possess these virtues, they are real enough to possess failings, too. Each child struggles with something: pride, impatience, self-doubt. They are not perfect. They fail themselves and each other. But what’s exciting is that these characters take responsibility for their actions. By acknowledging their failings, they gain humility, appreciate forgiveness, and seize opportunities to make things right.

These kids struggle with weighty issues, too. Are most people innately good? Can good things come from bad circumstances? For Mr. Benedict, the answers to these questions are decidedly yes, but he lets the children come to those conclusions on their own. He doesn’t force his beliefs upon them, but gives them every opportunity to see the good in their surroundings, offering a safe place for them to work through these important lessons that every child must face.

This series also teaches that revenge, retaliation, and vengeance aren’t the answer. As in most epic battles of good versus evil, our protagonists are sorely tempted to employ all of those things. At one point Kate is told, “We’re not like them,” but it’s ultimately up to her to decide which path she wants to take. I don’t think there can ever be enough books with this message and I appreciate that Stewart lets his characters find these truths on their own as we all must.

 

 

Suffice it to say, The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart has definitely found a home on my most-loved books list. I seriously can’t wait to read it with my kids. I love that Stewart plants surprises around every corner and peppers even the most innocent seeming chapters with clues. Nothing is ever as it seems and only the quick, ingenious, and clever will succeed…which is as it should be.

 

Happy Reading!

 

 

PS. I’m almost through with this series! What should my next great read be?? And, as always, if you have read these books, NO SPOILERS, please! I basically ended a friendship based on the fact that the person ruined The Half-Blood Prince for me and I’m not even kidding…this girl don’t play spoilers, y’all.

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5 Reasons You Should Read This Book: The Penderwicks

14 Jan

I seriously laaarve this book.

The Penderwicks is Jeanne Birdsall’s glorious beyond glorious story of four sisters, their widowed father, their wild dog, Hound, and the wonderful boy they befriend while vacationing in a cottage located on an estate called Arundel. Whew. The story funny and sweet and the characters are so easy to love. Here are my five reasons for you to read it!

1.)  Probably the best thing about The Penderwicks is that it just feels so old fashioned in a very good way. The family is comprised of four girls: Rosalind, the eldest, most practical sister; Skye, the wild tomboy; Jane, the melodramatic and sometimes flaky aspiring writer; and Batty, the baby who is shy and wears butterfly wings at all times. I can’t really describe it, but this book just “feels like” Little Women or Anne of Green Gables without feeling like a knock-off, which I think is a great accomplishment.

The girls have MOPS (Meeting of Penderwick Sisters) and MOOPS (Meeting of Older Penderwick Sisters). They write and read constantly. They’re encouraged to be themselves and to help others. They get into lots of adventures and “scrapes” as Alcott would say, and the entire book is just a wholesome joy.

2.) Penderwick Family Honor! Whenever a situation arises in which the girls have to make a judgement call – and plenty do – they always revert back to Penderwick Family Honor. I love this because honor is clearly a value that’s been stressed as an integral part of the identity of this family. This is a family that values bravery, loyalty, integrity, imagination, learning, all things I desperately want to impart upon my girls. Mr. Penderwick is portrayed as the slightly flaky professor type, but it’s clear that he has invested deeply in his children and trusts them to live according to the values with which they’ve been brought up.  “Penderwick Family Honor” is the code they all live by, the battle cry recited before challenges, the tie that binds. A lovely picture of family.

3.) I love any book that references other books. Birdsall is very well-read and I love that in an author. She does a great job of peppering her stories with literary references that enable her readers to figure out what she’s all about as a writer and a reader, too. Reading The Penderwicks was a jumping-off point for me to revisit some old favorites and to explore some new things. (Ivy and Bean is a new love of mine, thanks to Birdsall.)

4.) In a sea of books marketed toward girls that are just pure syrup and sparkles, The Penderwicks portrays an idea of girlhood that isn’t shackled to princesses or fairies, but also doesn’t stray so far in the other direction that the girls are all doing very masculine things because they’re trying to prove a point.

Jane is a hopeless romantic who also happens to kick butt on the soccer field. Rosalind has a bit of a crush on a boy, but doesn’t swoon herself silly. I think Birdsall really “gets” the complexities of childhood and it’s apparent in her characters. These are girls who you’d want your own daughter (or son) to be friends with.

And speaking of which, the girls collectively befriend Jeffrey, the son of the snobby socialite who owns Arundel. Their friendship with Jeffrey makes the real meat of the book and it’s nice to see such a healthy friendship develop between them all. The girls adopt Jeffrey as one of their own and are loyal to him without question. The fact that he’s a boy and they’re all girls doesn’t matter at all because none of them are icky caricatures of “how children are” but rather are great examples of what childhood can be. If I were to make a list of books that girls should read, this would definitely be included.

5.) It’s a series! There are currently three Penderwicks books published, with Birdsall working on number four and planning for a total of five in the series. Huzzah! The second and third books are just as lovely as the first. The second book, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is hilarious…

…and number three, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette  is a tear jerker and, incidentally, made me want to listen to a lot of Copland, which is never a bad thing.

As usual, I urge you to get thee to a library and quickly, too! Get more information about the books at Jeanne Birdsall’s website and read some hints about book numero four here! 

And, last, read a great interview with Birdsall here!

If you’ve already fallen in love with the Penderwicks, let’s chat it up in the comments! Who is your favorite character? What’s your favorite shenanigan the girls and Jeffrey get into? No spoilers, please! 🙂

5 Reasons You Should Read This Book: “Twelve Kinds of Ice” by Ellen Bryan Obed

29 Nov

Last night we decorated the Christmas tree and witnessed a true holiday miracle. The  hubz and I were able to sit and enjoy each other’s company alone because both of the children were asleep. Wonders never cease.

 

As we were winding down the evening, I finished reading “Twelve Kinds of Ice” by Ellen Bryan Obed, illustrated by  Barbara McClintock. And because it’s so accessible at 61 pages, I read it again immediately. This book is gorgeous. Oh, my soul, do I love it!

 

Twelve Kinds of Ice

 

It’s a first-person recollection of a family’s winter traditions all centered around ice and the different forms it takes in their lives. There’s the first ice that forms on buckets and can be easily broken, but as the ice gets thicker and comes in different ways, anticipation builds as the narrator looks forward to skating on streams and ponds, and finally on the family ice rink in the garden. Get thee to the library and read it asap. Here’s why!

 

1.) This book is superbly written. It begs to be read aloud, preferably by firelight with hot cocoa in hand. Here’s an excerpt of one of my favorite parts, in which the children skate on the large pond near their home,

“We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, raced together. Our blades spit out silver. Our lungs breathed out silver. Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.”

Stunning.

 

2.) I think this story is just magical because it captures the emotions that I truly associate with childhood: anticipation, joy, and longing. The manner in which the book is written, so simply yet with such detail, really conveys the feeling of being a child waiting and waiting and waiting for a much-loved event and the magnitude of enjoyment that comes from finally getting to experience it. Oh, and the dreaming, the pretending, the planning… of Rink Rules and ice shows and future Olympics. That’s what childhood is all about, in some form or another.

 

3.) The family in this book absolutely adores one another. Obed depicts parents who are deeply involved in their children’s lives, who teach and challenge, and yet allow freedom to explore. I especially love that there’s a devoted and involved father in this book. He leads the family on adventures, shows them how to maintain their rink, and puts on comical skating shows for everyone to watch from the bedroom window at night. Precious and perfect.

 

4.) Barbara McClintock’s illustrations are really, really great. They strike the right balance between realism and fancy. They’re simple, lovely drawings that add to the story without stealing the show and yet there’s an incredible attention to detail that I really appreciated upon closer inspection.

“The second ice was thicker. We would pick it out of the pails like panes of glass.” (p. 10)

 

 

5.) Winter is magical. Ice is magical. Ice skating, though I’ve only gone once and practically killed myself trying, is magical. “Twelve Kinds of Ice” is magical.  I really think it’s the perfect book to read with a buddy, a school-aged kid, a sweetheart, a sister. It’s quick and short, but so, so joyful and sweet. It truly reminded me of how a child observes the mystery of winter and, for a stressed out adult, that’s pretty magical in and of itself!

“The Ice Show” (p. 52)

 

 

 

 

 

*Nobody involved in the writing, illustrating, or publishing of this book knows who the heck I am. I just love sharing good books with good people…Enjoy!

5 Reasons You Should Read This Book: “In My Heart” by Molly Bang

7 Nov

Since I work in a library and sometimes get to -gasp!- actually read books, I thought it’d be a good idea to start a new segment entitled, “5 Reasons You Should Read This Book.” I’ll be reviewing and recommending books, mostly children’s but possibly adult, too, and giving you 5 reasons I think you should read them. Pretty simple.

 

Okay, so my first pick is, “In My Heart” by Molly Bang

 

1.) This is the perfect book for working families who are separated from one another during the day. It has been the biggest help for Mags who sometimes has trouble with me going to work…at least for the five seconds it takes for me to get out the door.

The book starts with the mother going to work and reminding her child that he’s always in her heart no matter what she’s doing throughout the day. And she’s in his heart, too! I really haven’t found a book that deals with this issue so sensitively and without condescending to the reader. The writing is natural and sweet.

 

2.) And speaking of sensitive and perfect, as you can see from the cover, the child and parents are of different races, so this book is wonderful for adoptive or foster families, too!

 

3.) Which leads me to my third point: Molly Bang is one of the few children’s authors who is able to achieve diversity in her work without trying too hard. Too many authors and illustrators attempt to tackle big issues like race and adoption but make the mistake of putting out work that says, “Look at me! Did you see what I did! Look how diverse and culturally sensitive I am!!” I have no time for that jazz.

Molly Bang is kind of like the Ernest Hemingway of children’s literature… it’s the iceberg theory in perfect, glorious practice and I love her for it.

 

4.) The illustrations in this book are absolutely gorgeous! The illustrations for “In My Heart” were inspired by the work of medieval monks, which is cool, so look for pictures that create beginning letters of words. Also be aware that Molly Bang has the most amazing eye for detail ever, so take your time to really absorb all of the pictures. And, AND, the more familiar you are with Bang’s work, the more you’ll get out of her illustrations because she likes to hide characters from other books in the pictures. Sneaky and fun!

 

5.) “In My Heart” should be the gateway book that gets you hooked on the rest of Molly Bang’s work. (Can you tell I’m sort of obsessed with her?) She’s won oodles (yes, oodles) of awards and honors for her work which include such wonderful titles as:

Depicts a little girl dealing with her anger in a healthy way…another favorite at our house!

 

 

A book of thankfulness… ‘Tis the season!

 

Incredible art and no words. Very fun!

 

I really could go on and on about how much I love Molly Bang’s books. Visit her website to find more about additional titles and subjects (lots of great science books!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: Do remember that none of the authors/illustrators/publishers/book binders/publisher’s lackeys/book binder’s lackeys have any idea that I exist, nor are they affiliated with me in any way. Feel free to write them and request that they pay me a zilliondy dollars for telling my peeps about their books. Yes,   I just said “peeps” because I’m a child of the 90’s.

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