Friday, March 30, 2012

That Test You're Taking Might be For You to be a Secret Agent--Trenton Lee Stewart at Boswell on April 12.

It all started with a test. Specifically, what would happen if a kid took a test and didn’t know that the reason for the test went far beyond what he or she imagined. That's the story behind The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Our hero, Reynie Muldoon, is an orphan being tutored by Miss Perumel. It is clear that his prospects are limited. It’s thought that this test could open doors for him. And when he passes the test (you must know he’s going to pass the test) using his wonderful abilities to solve puzzles.

The test sorted out kids who would be perfect agents to overthrow a terrible scheme to take over the earth. But it turns out that Sticky Washington passed the test through his great studying skills. And Kate Wetherall’s adeptness with tools gave her the abilities to pass as well. And Constance Contraire? She passed by sheer contrariness (or should I say Contraire-iness?)

Mr. Benedict, who leads this program, is very wise indeed. He’s a very good leader, despite being handicapped by narcolepsy. He has several folks working for him, Number Two, who is known to wear yellow outfits and pencil skirts, Rhonda, Kazembe, a woman short enough to pose as a fellow student, and Milligan, a mysterious agent who seems to have no past memories. Is he a victim of brainsweeping or perhaps a victim of S.A.D. (Sudden Amnesia Disease)?

Reynie and the other new recruits are called upon to infiltrate The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where they will pose as students and try to uncover the nefarious scheme. Is there anything else that is nefarious, aside from a scheme? I’d love to know. We know that the Institute is broadcasting messages that are subliminally influencing people, with various 1984-like aphorisms.

This is nefarious indeed, and will surely lead to complete and total submission. These contradictions are also the lesson plans and rules of order for the Institute. For example, you can keep your light on as long as you want, as long as it’s off by ten o’clock.

Needless to say, Trenton Lee Stewart had a lot of comparisons to Harry Potter. A whole generation of writers is going to credit J.K. Rowling as their inspiration. But the sense of humor is more sly, with notes of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. But the black humor and the puns are just some of what I and so many other folks love about Stewart.

I particularly like Stewart’s underlying idea that there is more than one way to be intelligent. You can be learned in the book smart traditional sense, or a puzzle solver, or a technician, or a skeptic (philosopher). But in The Mysterious Benedict Society, every kind of smartness is valued and it takes them all working together to save the world.

Well, at least for now. There are still several more volumes in the series for me to read. But even if you haven’t read all three books, you can read the prequel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. Learn about Mr. Benedict when he was a child. We’re hosting Mr. Stewart on Thursday, April 12, 7 pm, at Boswell.

And don’t forget about our other kids’ events in April.

Tuesday, April 17, 7 pm, at the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall, 733 N. Eighth St.:
Kate DiCamilloThursday, author of The Magican’s Elephant, The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie, and Bink and Gollie.

Thursday, Apri l 19, 6:30 pm, at the Greenfield Public Library, 5310 West Layton Ave.:
Herman Parish, author of Amelia Bedelia’s First Vote and many other Amelia Bedelia novels.

Monday, April 30, 6:30 pm, at Shorewood Public Library, 3920 North Murray Ave.:
Michael Buckley, author of the Sisters Grimm and NERDS series.

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