Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Letter - The Mysterious Benedict Society

On Wednesdays, my posts will focus on my correspondence with a group of eighth graders and their teacher, Lisa Herschberger, who teaches English at Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana. We will be writing about the books we are reading, and Lisa and I hope to model how to talk about a story in more ways then just summarizing what happened. We hope to post our letters to and from each other, as well as letters from the students.

Dear Callie,

I was so excited to get your letter. I enjoyed reading the poem by Sara Lewis Holmes, as well as the excerpt from her blog. The part about eating cupcakes and painting her toes was a great example of “showing” instead of “telling” the reader an idea. We’ve been studying that in class, so it was a good reminder for us.

Letters from Rapunzel sounds like a fantastic book, and I have added it to my list of books I want to read. When you mentioned that you love to read books in letter form, I thought of Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, which is one of my favorite historical fiction novels. I loved it because the letter form helped me connect with the character, even though she was from a different time period. It’s been a long time since I read it, so I won’t go into detail here, but I highly recommend it!

The book I want to talk about today is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I had heard about this book from a few of my students last year and added it to my “Someday” list because I was really intrigued. When my daughter brought the book home from school one day a few weeks ago, I decided to read it along with her.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is one of the most unique books I have ever read. It’s about a boy named Reynie Muldoon, who responds to an ad in the newspaper recruiting “gifted children looking for special opportunities”. He is asked to complete a series of tests and challenges to see if he qualifies for this “opportunity”. Reynie passes the tests, along with three other kids. The four are sent to see Mr. Benedict, who informs them that he needs them for an important mission: to go undercover to the “Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened” and foil the plan of the evil Mr. Curtain, who is plotting to take control of society. During their quest, the kids are presented with a series of puzzles and mysteries to solve. One of the things I like about this story is that I was able to try to solve these right along with the characters. I love brain-teasers, and this story was full of them.

This book reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, with its quirky, mysterious characters. For instance, one of the characters, who administers the test to the kids, is called the “Pencil Lady”, because she is tall and skinny and wears a yellow dress, making her look like a pencil. She gives mysterious non-answers when she’s asked a question, just like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory. At one point, when Reynie asks her if she is lying to him, she answers, “That’s a perfectly reasonable question, Reynard. A perfectly reasonable question.” But she doesn’t answer him, which just adds to the mystery.

I also enjoy the subtle word play that is used throughout the story. I appreciate that the author respects his audience enough to trust that we will “get” the underlying jokes. At one point, the Pencil Lady tells the kids, to their horror, that “if any child is caught cheating, then he or she will be executed . . .”, only to later reassure them that she meant to say they would be “escorted from the building.” As another example of word play, one of the settings is “Nomansan Island”. This highlights one of the themes of the story: the fact that ‘no man’s an island’ . . . all four of the main characters must use their individual strengths together as a team in order to have any hope of solving the mystery, or even of surviving.

That brings me to what I like the best about this book. It explores the idea that intelligence comes in many different packages. The characters have very different strengths, and none of them would be able to complete the mission without the help of the others. One of them has a great memory for facts; another can perform almost any physical feat; still another is great at solving puzzles and “thinking outside the box”. They are all smart in their own way. It takes them a while to figure that out, but once they do, the results are astounding. This reminds me of a favorite quote of mine, by Albert Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I need to look for the unique gifts of my students, even if I have to dig a little sometimes. I wish every parent and teacher would do that!

I think a lot of middle school students – boys and girls – could really enjoy this book. As I was reading, I was asking myself which of the characters I could best identify with and which ones I would probably like the best. My answers kept changing as I was reading, which makes me think that a lot of different kids could relate to the story. It is a great mix of mystery, humor, and even a little science fiction. Many times as we were reading side by side, my daughter or I would laugh out loud or say, “I can’t believe that just happened!” and then go on to talk about our thoughts. My husband would ask what we were talking about, and we couldn’t explain it – we were together in our own world, with our shared understandings. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks for reading my long letter. I tend to have trouble stopping myself once I start talking about a book I love. I’m looking forward to hearing about what you’re reading next!



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