Monday, August 23, 2010

A Most Fearsome Oath: Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers School: We the Children by Andrew Clements

Mr. Keane grabbed hold and pressed something into his palm, quickly closing the boy's fingers around it. Then he clamped Ben's fist inside his leathery grip.

"This thing in your hand? I've been carrying around with me every day for forty-three years . . . and before that, the other janitors had it--everyone of them--all the way back to the very first man hired by Captain Oakes himself when he founded the school."

"Look at it...but first promise that you'll keep all this secret." He squinted up into Ben's face, his blue eyes bright and feverish. "Do you swear?"

Ben's mouth was dry. He'd have done anything to get this scary old man with bad breath to let go of him. He whispered, "I swear."

It was a large gold coin with rounded edges, smooth as a beach pebble.


Ben is late for homeroom, running down a back hall in hopes of avoiding detention by making it into his seat before roll call, when he sees the school's elderly head janitor in obvious pain struggling down the hall. Ben tries to help, but instead of sending him for someone, the old janitor seems compelled to pass on some sort of secret talisman to him, something to do with the fate of the old building which has been the town school for more than 200 years.

Ben Pratt knows that his historic school is slated for the wrecking ball at the end of his sixth grade year. Although he loves the old school, given to the town by an eccentric and wealthy sea captain to be its school in perpetuity, Ben has other things on his mind as the school year draws to its close. Not just middle school next year and his parents' painful separation, which is with him like a familiar pain, but more immediately the big sailing race coming up on the weekend where he and rival Robert Gerritt will face off again in the individual heat.

But when the intercom breaks into their afternoon routine with the announcement that Mr. Keane has passed away, Ben suddenly feels the power of the old man's charge hit him full force. And then, there's the mystery of the meaning of this secret that he swore to uphold. How can he defend an old school that is already sold and set for demolition to provide land for a theme park, Tall Ships Ahoy! which the whole town believes will bring nothing but prosperity to Edgeport?

Ben turns to the smartest person he knows, his friend Jill. Together they read the inscription on the back of the gold coin, cryptic directions to someplace "amidships on the top deck, north-northeast." Immediately Jill remembers the compass rose outside the girls' bathroom on the third floor of the school. "The top deck, of course," Ben intuits, and behind a strangely short piece of molding on the wall they find a copper plate engraved and signed by three students in 1791. Hurriedly Jill and Ben walk to Ben's dad's boat to read the message in private:

If you have found this message on purpose, then an evil day besets us.... Captain Oakes has given this school to us, the children, but he feared others would one day try to take it away.

What follows are cryptic clues to the steps the "Keepers of the School" must follow to defend it from demolition. Ben hastily copies the message onto his laptop, and as the two walk down the pier toward home, they are stopped by Kevin at the marina security booth. "This is for your dad," he says, handing Ben a business card which reads JACKSON SWERDLING YACHT BROKER.

Ben is puzzled. His dad hasn't said anything about selling his beloved boat. Jill's suspicions are aroused, and when she questions Kevin about the appearance of the so-called broker, both realize that he must be the school's assistant janitor, Mr. Lyman--an apparent spy for someone. But why? Could Lyman have heard something from Mr. Keane, and knowing that Ben was the last one to talk to him, could he have actually bugged his dad's boat to find out what Ben knows about the mysterious gold coin and its strange charge? Suddenly Ben and Jill realize that they, willing or not, are now the Keepers of the School, and that it is their charge to stop the destruction of the centuries-old school and prevent the construction of the multi-million dollar theme park on its waterfront site. But how?

In this first of a planned series of six novels in the Keepers of the School series, We the Children (Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School) (Atheneum, 2010), best-selling author Andrew Clements lays the groundwork for what looks to be a page-turning mystery/ adventure series. No one knows how to get inside the heads of the upper elementary/middle school protagonist better than Clements, and this series looks to both familiar and new territory for this very capable author. In this first volume, Clements provides plenty of intriguing clues and irresistible hints, along with a daring rescue at sea to wind up the action, as We the Children (Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School) kicks off what promises to be a a page-turning new adventure series for middle readers.

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