I just read the Keepers of the School series and have to share how much I liked them! Andrew Clements is one of my favorite writers for the fifth-sixth grade age group. His characters are all interesting in some special way – even the main character in Just Average, a book that was definitely asking to be written after so many stories about students who are in some way extraordinary. Lately I’ve gotten a little tired of noticing some of his writing techniques, kind of like how I felt watching local plays by the fourth year of college – you can only see the same person pretend to be so many characters before you can’t ignore that the voice and face are the same, unless you happen to go to school with someone like Gary Oldman, and you can only read so many books by one author before you start to tire of certain sentence structures. An example in my own words: “And that way she knocked on the door? It sounded like a drummer setting the pace for a marching army.” The grammarian in me is a bit sore from the sentence fragment feeling it gives me. But I keep reading what he comes out with and enjoying it.
Benjamin Pratt & the Keepers of the School was Clements’ first series for this age level, and while the first couple books felt like he should have just written one longer novel (and I still feel that way after finishing all 5, even though it would be a big departure from the usual length of his books), I feel like he needed all that space to really develop this incredible character. The student at the center of it all, Ben, isn’t a gifted writer or athlete, isn’t a genius nor an inventor, isn’t rich or famous, none of that, and at first both he and the reader are wondering what his role is at the center of the unfolding plot, and why he’s the leader when his two friends are both quicker with facts than he is. What he eventually figures out is that his role as leader is crucial to holding the team together so that they can solve the puzzles needed to save their school. Watching him deal with setbacks and frustrations, through Clements’ third-person-limited narration, is a beautiful picture of both leadership and a very mature ability to put aside strong feelings and keep thinking through a problem. I haven’t taught sixth grade myself, but I kept thinking how I haven’t known a lot of children who are at this level, and that there are plenty of adults out there who also struggle with this ability! One of the students who joins in mid-series is almost constantly annoying in various ways, and Ben succeeds in dealing with it in positive ways almost all of the time, keeping the group working together and the project moving forward, with his thought process there for the reader to see. Amazing.
Clements also shows his respect for people in not making anyone the “bad guy,” as he’s shown time and again when students have to deal with adults who may oppose them for one reason or another but in the end the students understand that the adults have the students’ best interests at heart, and they are able to respect each other even if they still disagree – generally they’re on the same team by the end. In this case the opposition is pretty stiff but there is a good conclusion (if a bit too quick), and the while it starts out super-secret among the children, they do get help from carefully-chosen adults and bring their parents into what’s going on.
As for the actual plot, (I know, “Finally,” right?) I don’t want to give much away, but it’s a treasure hunt kind of story, with the students searching for clues to save their school (and town) from developers who want to tear down the historic harborside school to put in an amusement park. The man who built the school around the time of the American Revolution left behind “safeguards” for future generations to use to protect it, but it’s a race against time for the kids to find them and put them into play against the huge corporation that’s ready to tear it down after the last day of school, especially as they need to dodge the industrial spies posing as janitors who are keeping an eye on them.