The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (NY: Little, Brown, 2007).
Many children's books portray their young protagonists in life threatening situations over which they must triumph to save the world. Here puzzle master Reynie Muldoon, supersmart Sticky (George) Washington, intrepid and resourceful Kate Wetherall, and whiny little Constance Contraire all pass a special test that takes them to the home of Mr. Benedict. He has a unique mission for them: to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened that has been using children to transmit secret brainwashing messages all over the world via television, radio, and other media. These odd messages act subliminally, and Mr. Benedict suspects they are at the root of the present "Emergency" state of the earth.
The Institute is located on Nomansan Island (yes, the book is full of these funny little word games) and the children immediately notice many strange contradictions--you can go anywhere on the island, but you must stay on the paths. You can stay up as late as you want as long as you go to bed at 10 p.m. You can eat whenever you want as long as it's during prescribed meal times. It's an odd school where students hear the same contradictory-sounding lessons over and over, and the best students become "messengers" who have privileges associated with transmitting messages dictated by Mr. Ledroptha Curtain, the Institute's founder and the evil genius who plans to take over the world--unless Reynie and his crew can stop his nefarious plan!
Stewart creates engaging and humorous characters to whom children will relate well. The plot moves along trippingly at the beginning, drags a bit in the middle, but ends dramatically--and happily, with obvious room for a sequel! Boys and girls will enjoy the camaraderie of the children and the way they have to figure out what to do with minimal adult supervision. Excellent, though extremely long, read at nearly five hundred pages; fine for ages 8 and up, or read aloud in smallish chunks to a slightly younger audience.
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