The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart (2012, Little Brown, middle grade, 480 pages).
Long before all the exciting events chronicled in The Mysterious Benedict Society and its sequels, Nicholas Benedict was a young orphan, friendless and plagued by narcolepsy (and cursed with an unfortunately large nose). At the age of nine, he was shuttled off to a new orphanage, in an old manor house off in the country. But it was no idyllic rural retreat--faced with vicious bullies, selfish and shortsighted adults, and haunted by nightmares, Nicholas is at first despondent. Fortunately for Nicholas, though, he's a genius....
And when he learns that there is a treasure hidden somewhere on the estate (one the master of the orphanage is also desperate to find), he bends all the powers of his intellect to finding it (except, of course, those powers of intellect he needs to stay one step ahead of the bullies). With the help of two new friends, a fellow orphan and the daughter of a local farmer (whom he meets in mysterious circumstances), Nicholas searches for clues to the treasure's whereabouts. He dreams that it will be a deus ex machina that will solve all his problems...and maybe it will be. Or not.
Far removed from the international high-jinks and dangers that await Nicholas in the future, this story is more domestic--the stage is smaller, the dangers less dramatic. Those, like me, who relish a good plucky orphan tale (that includes a basement stuffed with discarded odds and ends and a lovely library) will enjoy it even more than the later books! Those who enjoyed the puzzles and good hearted characters of those books will find those things here as well.
It is in large part a very satisfying character study of Nicholas--precocious, a tad selfish, and desperate for friends. Those looking for Action and Villains might be disappointed--the mystery here is a paper chase, involving understanding the characters from the people from past who were involved as much as anything else. I myself was not disappointed, enjoyed it immensely, and am looking forward to re-reading the previous books in the series with new insight into Nicholas.
Trenton Lee Stewart is currently on tour (although, sadly, not to New England). Here's the schedule.
Thanks to the publishers, I have three copies to offer as a giveaway! Just leave a comment (US only, no PO boxes) by the end of next Monday, April 23rd!