From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
Are you a gifted child looking for Special Opportunities? This curious newspaper ad catches the eye of orphan Reynie Muldoon. After taking exams that test both mind and spirit, Reynie is selected along with four other contestants--Sticky Washington, a nervous child with a photographic memory; irrepressible Kate Weatherhill; and a tiny child who lives up to her name, Constance Contraire. The children soon learn they've been chosen by mysterious Mr. Benedict for an important mission: they are to infiltrate the isolated Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, from which messages of distrust and compliance are being broadcast into the minds of the world's citizens. Debut novelist Stewart takes some familiar conventions--among them, an orphan struggling against evil forces (Harry Potter, anyone?)--and makes them his own. But like the Potter books, his story goes beyond mere adventures, delving into serious issues, such as the way sloganeering can undermine society--or control it. Through its interesting characters, the book also tackles personal concerns: abandonment, family, loyalty, and facing one's fears. The novel could have been shortened, but Stewart writes with such attention to the intricacies of plot and personality, his story rarely feels slow; only a significant disclosure about Constance seems forced. Smart kids who like Blue Balliet's books are the natural audience for this; but, read aloud, the novel will attract many others as well. Illustrations to come. --Ilene Cooper Copyright 2007 Booklist
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Stewart's (Flood Summer, for adults) first book for young people begins with a bang. Gifted 11-year-old orphan Reynie Muldoon is sharing the newspaper with his tutor when she excitedly points out an ad: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" She encourages him to take the series of tests cited in the ad, and the entire process resembles the otherworldly experience of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with puzzles within puzzles and tests within tests-some mental, some ethical, some physical. Ultimately three children pass the first test and go on to the next: Reynie, Sticky (born George) Washington and Kate Wetherall-all of them essentially orphans. A fourth, the "very, very small" Constance Contraire, joins them later, and Mr. Benedict describes why he has brought them together. Initially, readers-like the four children-may be unsure of what to think about this mysterious gent: Is he hero or villain? Mr. Benedict has recruited them to foil an evil plan, devised by a mysterious "Sender," to brainwash the population via secret messages-delivered by children-embedded in television and radio programs. The plot-driven novel follows many adventures among the four, whose unique talents all come into play; readers will likely warm to each of them. A couple of concluding twists involving Kate and Connie may throw readers a bit, but these do not detract from the book's entertainment value or from the author's sound overall structure. Though the book is lengthy, readers will likely enjoy getting lost in this fully imagined realm. Ages 8-12. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
School Library Journal
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Gr 5-9-After Reynie Muldoon responds to an advertisement recruiting "gifted children looking for special opportunities," he finds himself in a world of mystery and adventure. The 11-year-old orphan is one of four children to complete a series of challenging and creative tasks, and he, Kate, Constance, and Sticky become the Mysterious Benedict Society. After being trained by Mr. Benedict and his assistants, the four travel to an isolated school where children are being trained by a criminal mastermind to participate in his schemes to take over the world. The young investigators need to use their special talents and abilities in order to discover Mr. Curtain's secrets, and their only chance to defeat him is through working together. Readers will challenge their own abilities as they work with the Society members to solve clues and put together the pieces of Mr. Curtain's plan. In spite of a variety of coincidences, Stewart's unusual characters, threatening villains, and dramatic plot twists will grab and hold readers' attention. Fans of Roald Dahl or Blue Balliett will find a familiar blend of kid power, clues, and adventure in Society, though its length may daunt reluctant or less-secure readers. Underlying themes about the power of media messages and the value of education add to this book's appeal, and a happy ending with hints of more adventures to come make this first-time author one to remember.-Beth L. Meister, Pleasant View Elementary School, Franklin, WI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.