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The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
Illustrated by Diana Sudyka
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Nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict has more problems than most children his age. Not only is he an orphan with an unfortunate nose, but he also has narcolepsy, a condition that gives him terrible nightmares and makes him fall asleep at the worst possible moments. Now he’s being sent to a new orphanage, where he will encounter vicious bullies, selfish adults, strange circumstances — and a mystery that could change his life forever. Luckily, he has one important thing in his favor: He’s a genius.
On his quest to solve the mystery, Nicholas finds enemies around every corner, but also friends in unexpected places — and discovers along the way that the greatest puzzle of all is himself.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of The Mysterious Benedict Society
A Sneak Peek of The Secret Keepers
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The train station at Pebbleton, dark and sooty though it was, glistened in the mist. Electric lamps above the platform cast their light upon a thousand reflecting surfaces: the puddles along the tracks, the streaked windows of the station house, the umbrellas hoisted over huddled, indistinct figures on the platform. To a person of whimsical mind, the scene might resemble something from a tale, a magical gathering in a dark wood, the umbrellas looming like toadstools over fairy folk.
There was, in fact, such a person watching from the window of the approaching train, a boy of whimsical mind, to be sure (though whimsy was not the half of it, nor even the beginning), and the fairy-tale qualities of the scene occurred to him at once. So too did a great many other things, including the sentence "It glistened in the mist; the train hissed, and I listened," a poetic train of thought that sounded rather like a train itself, which pleased him. But foremost in the boy's mind was the awareness that Pebbleton station was his stop—the end of his train journey, the beginning of a new unknown.
He turned to his chaperone, a plump old woman with spectacles so large the brim of her hat rested upon their frames. "What shall we call this, Mrs. Ferrier—an arrival or a departure?"
Mrs. Ferrier was putting away her knitting needles. "I suppose both, Nicholas. Or however you like." She clasped her bag and peered out the grimy window. "It's a miserable night for either."
"Shall I tell you what I'm thinking, Mrs. Ferrier?"
"Heavens no, Nicholas! That would take hours, and we have only moments. There, we've stopped."
The old woman turned from the window to appraise his appearance, despite having already done so before they boarded the train. Nicholas doubted he had changed much in the course of their half day's journey, and his reflection, easily seen in Mrs. Ferrier's enormous spectacles, proved him right: He was still a skinny, towheaded nine-year-old with threadbare clothes and an unfortunate nose. Indeed, his nose was so long and lumpy that it drew attention away from his one good feature—his bright and impish green eyes—though Mrs. Ferrier had often remarked that someday, should Nicholas come to require spectacles, his nose would do an admirable job holding them in place. It was always best to be positive, she told him.
"Well?" he asked as she studied him. "Do you think they'll take me? Or will they send me back and keep the money for their trouble?"
Mrs. Ferrier pursed her lips. "Please don't be saucy, Nicholas. I say this for your sake. It's nothing to me now, is it? Remember your manners, and make yourself useful around the orphanage. Start off on the right foot, and you'll be happier for it."
Nicholas feigned surprise. "Oh! You want me to be happy, Mrs. Ferrier?"
"Of course I do," puffed the old woman as she struggled to her feet. "I want everyone to be happy, don't I? Now follow me, and mind you don't step on the backs of my shoes."
Mrs. Ferrier and Nicholas were the only passengers to disembark the train. Several were boarding, however, and they crowded the aisles most inconveniently as they closed their umbrellas and removed their overcoats. By the time the old woman and her charge managed to descend the steps, the platform was empty save for one man in a somber gray suit and hat, standing rigidly beneath his umbrella. At the sight of them, he strode forward to shield Mrs. Ferrier with it. He was so tall that when he stood over Nicholas his face appeared mostly as a sharp, jutting chin and cavernous nostrils. His suit carried a faintly pleasant odor of pipe tobacco, which Nicholas liked, and the boy's initial impression was neutral until Mr. Collum, which was the man's name, introduced himself to Mrs. Ferrier and told Nicholas to run and fetch his trunk.
"There's no trunk to fetch, sir," said Nicholas, blinking in the mist (for he stood outside the umbrella's protection). "Only this suitcase. I'm Nicholas, sir. Nicholas Benedict." He held out his hand.
"No trunk?" said Mr. Collum, frowning. "Well, I daresay that's common enough, though I hadn't expected it. I haven't met a child at the station before, you see." He was speaking directly to Mrs. Ferrier and appeared not to have noticed Nicholas's outstretched hand. "I assumed directorship of the Manor only this spring, as I'm sure Mr. Cuckieu told you."
"The Manor?" said Mrs. Ferrier with a confused look.
"Forgive me," Mr. Collum said. "You must know the orphanage as Rothschild's End—or 'Child's End, as it is often abbreviated. In these parts, however, it is quite common to shorten the name still further, for ease of speaking, and to refer to the place simply as the Manor. The residence at 'Child's End is the only manor in the area, you see, so this leads to no confusion."
Nicholas began to ask a question, but though he spoke clearly and politely enough, Mr. Collum continued speaking to Mrs. Ferrier as if Nicholas hadn't uttered a word.
"Now, madam," Mr. Collum said, "allow me to accompany you inside the station house, where you can wait out of the damp. I would invite you to the Manor for refreshment, but I'm afraid it's quite a long ride from Pebbleton. Our kettle would hardly have begun to whistle before your train does—it's due to arrive at nine."
Nicholas and Mrs. Ferrier, who was trying not to look shattered at the prospect of waiting in the station house for two hours, followed Mr. Collum into a dim, drafty room with sawdust on the floor and benches along the walls. Near the ticket counter, the stationmaster was telling the train conductor about a wicked egg thief who had visited his barn the night before. The conductor, seeing that Mrs. Ferrier and Nicholas had disembarked at last, gestured at the clock, and the stationmaster accompanied him back out to the train, hurrying to finish his story. The newcomers were left alone with a red-haired man who sat on one of the benches, absorbed in a rain-spotted newspaper.
"May I just have a brief word with you, Mr. Collum?" asked Mrs. Ferrier. "A private word?"
"Of course," said Mr. Collum, who had yet to look directly at Nicholas but did seem aware of him, for he held up a finger to indicate that the boy should stay put. He drew Mrs. Ferrier over to the ticket counter, where they stood with their backs to the room and spoke in hushed voices.
Nicholas strained his ears but could not make out a word of their conversation, so he turned his attention to the red-haired newspaper reader. The man appeared to be of late middle age, perhaps a decade older than Mr. Collum. His tanned, rough hands suggested a different sort of labor from that which occupied the orphanage director (whose own pale fingers were carefully manicured and, excepting one inky smear, as clean as soap could make them). A faint impression in the man's hair suggested he'd been wearing a hat, though Nicholas saw none on the bench, nor any on the hat rack nearby. With some difficulty the man turned to a different section in his newspaper (the damp pages clung together) and resumed his reading, mouthing the words to himself. Nicholas, watching his lips, followed along for a tedious ten seconds ("… impact on the price of wheat since the war's conclusion…") before losing patience and interest.
He glanced at the schedule above the ticket counter. Mrs. Ferrier's nine o'clock train was just the fifth one of the day; it was also the last. Pebbleton, it seemed, was not quite on the way to anywhere. Nicholas stepped to the nearest window facing the street. At the curb sat an aged Studebaker with mud on its tires and steam rising from its hood. Beyond it Nicholas could see most of Pebbleton without moving his head. A handful of shops, a few market stalls closed down for the day, an occasional parked automobile. In the gloomy distance, a grain silo put Nicholas in mind of a lighthouse seen through fog. A glary smudge over the trees to the west was all the sunset the evening could muster.
Behind the station house, the train sounded its whistle. Nicholas perked up his ears, hoping the adults would raise their voices. Naturally he was curious to know what they were saying about him. But the clamor of the departing train was so overwhelming that Nicholas couldn't have heard them if they shouted. The windows rattled; the plank floors trembled. Then a ghostly reflection appeared in the window behind his own, and Nicholas turned to discover Mrs. Ferrier looking down on him with grave finality. Mr. Collum lingered at the ticket counter, checking his pocket watch against the station house clock.
For what would be the last time, the old woman and young boy regarded each other. They were compelled to wait for the train to finish leaving the station before attempting to speak, however, which gave Nicholas ample time to reflect upon the occasion. He had wondered what sort of expression Mrs. Ferrier would put on for their parting, and now that the moment was at hand, he found it to be rather what he had expected: polite, businesslike, and almost comically serious. She was serious for his sake, he knew, in case he was afraid or sad. She was not much attached to Nicholas, perhaps because of his habitual impertinence—she thought him too saucy by far—but Mrs. Ferrier believed there was a way of doing things, and because she took comfort in this belief, she always made an effort.
She need not have bothered, at least not for Nicholas's sake. He was anything but sad. The last orphanage had been the worst yet, and he was glad to leave it. In fact, his time there had been so awful that before his departure he had secretly deposited sardines in many a tormentor's pillowcase, and had clicked his heels as he went out the door. No, he was far from sad, and though certainly nervous, he was not afraid, either. Or not very afraid, anyway. The Manor could hardly be worse than the last place, and there was always the chance it would be better.
The train's caboose had not yet cleared the station when the redheaded man rose, stretched, rearranged his newspaper, and exited the station house. Mr. Collum, meanwhile, had finished adjusting his watch and tucked it away. He went to the open door and paused. Glancing at Mrs. Ferrier, he touched his hat in what appeared to be a courteous farewell—though he might simply have been lowering its brim against the weather—and stepped outside with his umbrella. All of this had occurred as if in pantomime, with the train's rumbling, screeching, and clattering crowding out all other sound. When at last something like silence returned to the station house, Mrs. Ferrier laid a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Nicholas, you know what you must do," she said.
"Oh yes, Mrs. Ferrier! I'm to carry my suitcase out to that Studebaker, and never mind the drizzle. I imagine I'll sit in the back while Mr. Collum rides in front with the driver."
Mrs. Ferrier blinked. "The driver?"
"Why, sure," said Nicholas with a shrug. "That red-haired man with the new hat."
"The red-haired man…" Straightening, Mrs. Ferrier looked out the window behind him. Her eyebrows rose in surprise. "Well, yes, you're correct, though it isn't at all what I was going to say. I was going to say…" She noticed the boy staring at her expectantly, the corners of his lips twitching as if he was suppressing a smile, and she sighed. "Oh, very well, Nicholas. Tell me how you knew all that. This will be my last opportunity to hear one of your exhausting explanations."
Nicholas grinned, raised his chin like a songbird preparing to sing, and throwing his arms out for emphasis, burst forth with an astonishing flurry of words: "Well, the hat must be new, don't you think? Otherwise he wouldn't have left it in the Studebaker to spare it getting wet. Which is a funny thing, in my opinion, since hats are meant to protect their owners and not the other way around. But I've known quite a lot of people who go to amazing trouble on behalf of their hats, haven't you, Mrs. Ferrier? I wonder what happened to his umbrella, though? Perhaps he lost it. Anyway, I do wish he'd left a section of the newspaper for me—to cover my head with, you know, as he did, to keep it dry."
"I'm sure he meant to," said the old woman after a confused pause, "but only forgot." (This was the sort of thing Mrs. Ferrier always said in such cases, as part of her effort to be positive.) "But how did you know he was Mr. Collum's driver?"
Nicholas laughed. It was a squeaky, stuttering laugh, rather like the nickering of a pony. "I certainly doubt he's a passenger! The next train doesn't arrive for two hours, so it's not likely he was waiting for that, is it? Besides, he left when Mr. Collum did, and where else would he be going in this weather if not to that old Studebaker at the curb? It obviously just got here from somewhere out in the country—its engine is still hot and there's mud on the tires—and Mr. Collum said it's a long ride to the Manor. He did say ride rather than drive, you know, so I got the feeling he didn't intend to sit behind the wheel himself. Now, if there had been horses outside, especially a horse with an umbrella stand attached to it"—here Nicholas nickered again—I might have come to a different…"
Mrs. Ferrier was shaking her head, a common enough response to everything Nicholas said that he would have continued his speech unabated had she not held up a hand to check him. He'd been about to explain half a dozen other reasons he'd come to this conclusion about the red-haired man, as well as several he hadn't consciously thought of yet but which were sure to occur to him as he spoke. But Nicholas was used to being shushed by Mrs. Ferrier, and at any rate he knew that delaying Mr. Collum would not serve him well. So he let the explanations go with a shrug, and waited for Mrs. Ferrier to proceed.
"Thank you, Nicholas. That will be more than enough to make my poor head ache for the next two hours." Mrs. Ferrier cleared her throat. "And now this is goodbye. When I said that you know what you must do, I only meant to remind you to hold your tongue in check, and to make yourself useful. There, that's the last I'll say." She lifted his chin with her finger and looked once more into his eyes—a little wonderingly at first, as if she saw some mystery there she could never hope to fathom, and then with a different sort of expression Nicholas hadn't seen in her eyes before, something between sadness and exhaustion. She said, "I wish you better luck, child. Better luck than you've had. Now go on. Don't keep Mr. Collum waiting."
"Au revoir and adios, Mrs. Ferrier!" said Nicholas spryly, offering her an exaggerated military salute.
Mrs. Ferrier flinched and rubbed her temples, for Nicholas truly had given her a headache. Not for the first time she wondered how the boy could seem to know so much and yet so little. Here, at their final parting, he couldn't think of more suitable things to say? No best wishes, nor even a word of thanks? No, he only spun on his heels, grabbed his suitcase, and marched out into the next chapter of his life, a brash young soldier headed into a battle he felt certain of winning. He never even looked back.
Unlike her former young charge—now kicking the door closed behind him with a shocking bang—poor Mrs. Ferrier could not have thought of more suitable words for the occasion. Nicholas Benedict did have an exceptional gift for knowing things (more exceptional, in fact, than most adults would have thought possible), and yet not even he could know that this next chapter was to be the most unusual—and most important—of his entire childhood. Indeed, the strange days that lay ahead would change him forever, though for now they had less substance than the mist through which he ran.
Misery and joy. Discovery and danger. Mystery and treasure. For now, all were secrets waiting to be revealed.
For now, Nicholas Benedict was just a remarkable young orphan with secrets of his own, hastening to the Studebaker, where Mr. Collum sat in the front passenger seat looking impatient, and the red-haired driver was adjusting the rearview mirror, the better to admire his new hat.
The driver, Mr. Pileus, was a taciturn man. He spoke only when spoken to, and only if he absolutely must. He steered the old Studebaker with a focused, silent intensity, checking the mirrors so often he seemed afraid they might sneak away. Eventually Nicholas would learn that Mr. Pileus was not just the driver but the Manor's handyman, carpenter, and mechanic as well. He would learn this from others, though—certainly not from Mr. Pileus or Mr. Collum. At the moment, neither man seemed in any hurry to inform Nicholas about anything.
Mr. Collum, for his part, was busy paging through a business ledger, evidently preoccupied with urgent matters of income and expenses. From time to time he would press a magnifying loupe against his left eye—not a monocle but an actual loupe, the powerful sort used by jewelers and clockmakers to show them the imperceptible flaws in a diamond or the tiny workings of a watch. Nicholas supposed he must be almost blind in that eye. Each time, after studying the page for several seconds, Mr. Collum would remove the loupe with a bemused grunt. This was the only sound he made, however.
Nicholas watched the dusky countryside glide past, miles of rolling farmland and forested hills, until it was too dark to see anything but fence posts. He climbed onto his knees to see into the front, where the Studebaker's illuminated dials and gauges drew his attention. He was instantly curious about their functions and inner workings; he'd always been drawn to devices and contraptions of any kind, though he was never allowed to touch them. He wondered if Mr. Collum would resent being asked to turn on the radio; or rather, he tried to convince himself that Mr. Collum would not, when he knew positively that Mr. Collum would.
It had grown too dark for Mr. Collum to study his ledger, and yet he had remained silent, apparently deep in thought, his eyes resting on a page it was no longer possible for him to read. Finally, however, he sighed, put away his ledger and loupe, and began to speak. He didn't turn in his seat but simply lifted his head so that his voice would carry. "Are you awake, Nicholas?"
"Wide awake, Mr. Collum! And I'm eager to—"
"Very good," said the orphanage director. "I was wondering, of course, because of your condition. I would not wish to waste time speaking if my words were not being attended. Tell me, Nicholas, how often do you sail off to sleep? Tomorrow the boys begin metalworking—during the summer we have a different skills activity each week—and naturally it would not do for you to fall asleep with some sharp implement in hand."
The silent Mr. Pileus shuddered, evidently horrified at the thought, and cast a fleeting, reproachful glance at Nicholas in the rearview mirror, as if Nicholas had already wounded himself, and furthermore had done so on purpose.
"That would be unfortunate, sir," said Nicholas, "but it's easy enough to avoid. When I have a drowsy spell—which is only every few hours or so—I can feel it coming on in time to lie down. And usually I wake up in a matter of minutes."
"Is that all?" Mr. Collum asked. "I got the impression from your Mr. Cuckieu that you often dropped off without warning—just fell to the floor as though your string had been clipped."
"Oh no, sir!" Nicholas protested. "Well, I suppose I did have a few spells like that when the symptoms were first setting in, but that was over a year ago. It never happens anymore."
"I am heartily glad to hear it," said Mr. Collum, and he did sound relieved. "Every member of our small staff has multiple duties, you see. The less bandaging and stitching our nurse is compelled to do, the more she is able to attend to other tasks. I'm sure you understand that. In fact"—here Mr. Collum turned in his seat to look back at Nicholas—your chaperone, Mrs. Ferrier, seemed eager to convince me that there is little you do not understand. She thought I might find a boy of unusual intelligence to be especially useful at the Manor. Do you consider yourself unusually intelligent, Nicholas?"
Mr. Collum was studying him with narrowed eyes, clearly ready to judge his reply. Nicholas thought fast. A truthful answer would make him sound conceited. Also, Mr. Collum seemed irritated with Mrs. Ferrier, and Nicholas realized it would be wise to distance himself from her. "I'm sure I'm not the best judge of that, Mr. Collum, though I've been told that I'm bright."
"By Mrs. Ferrier, no doubt," said Mr. Collum with a slight shake of his head. "My own impression, Nicholas, was that she wished to give you an advantage. Under such circumstances, crafty matrons like Mrs. Ferrier will make all kinds of unsupported claims. They cannot be blamed, I'm sure, though it does try one's patience."
"I'm sure it must, sir," said Nicholas with an uncomfortable flutter in his belly, as if the Studebaker had just topped a hill at high speed. They were moving along a flat stretch of road, though, and quite slowly at that.
"However…" Mr. Collum scratched his sharp chin. "She was most adamant, your Mrs. Ferrier. She insisted you were the most intelligent person—by far—whom she had ever known in her many long years of life. 'More intelligent than yourself, madam?' I asked her, and I'm sorry to say, Nicholas, that she readily confirmed this, which did nothing to add credibility to her claim. I mean to say that if Mrs. Ferrier truly believes that a nine-year-old boy is more intelligent than she is, perhaps that is indeed the case. But if it is the case, you can see why I'm disinclined to trust Mrs. Ferrier's general opinion about intelligence. Do you follow my reasoning, Nicholas?"
"I think so, sir," Nicholas replied quietly.
"You think so," said Mr. Collum in a satisfied tone, as if Nicholas's reply had offered some proof of his suspicions. He turned to face forward again. "Exactly."
In the brief silence that followed, as Nicholas struggled to master his disappointment, the uncomfortable flutter in his belly worsened to a disagreeable churning, as if he had been forced to swallow something repulsive. His disappointment was awfully bitter. Nicholas had hoped to impress this new director—to amaze him, even, and win his favor. Though it had never exactly worked out that way before, this time Nicholas was older and had intended to benefit from his experience. He had never counted on Mrs. Ferrier trying to look out for him, if indeed that was what she'd been doing. Now Mr. Collum had formed his opinion and would resent having it changed. Nicholas had seen that happen before, with unpleasant results.
How should he proceed, then? He had plotted any number of different strategies (plotting strategies was the sort of thing Nicholas did when other children were playing jacks or Old Maid), but none seemed right under the circumstances, and he felt beset by uncertainties.
Only one thing was certain. No matter what, Nicholas would guard his secret—the awful secret, the one he had lied to Mr. Collum about—with every measure of wit he possessed: those unpredictable sleeping episodes, the attacks that struck without warning, dropping him from consciousness like a trapdoor into a black dungeon—oh no, Nicholas would never let on about those. For if ever word got out that strong emotions could do such a thing to him, that all it took to topple him was a too-hot flash of anger, a too-boisterous peal of laughter… well, after that there would be no end to the persecution.
Nicholas knew this from experience, unfortunately. At Littleview his condition had tempted even the mildest, most good-natured children to make sport of him, to make a regular game of upsetting him or getting him to laugh. (And those pranks, though horrible enough, were nothing compared to what the more vicious children had done.) Having endured such torments, he would have to be a fool to reveal his greatest weakness to anyone at 'Child's End—and Nicholas Benedict was no fool.
You only have to pretend to be one for Mr. Collum, he thought grimly. And keep your emotions in check.
"I understand you've lived in several different orphanages, Nicholas," said Mr. Collum, breaking the silence. He turned his head slightly, so that Nicholas saw the director's face in dark profile. So pronounced and angular were his features—the heavy brow, the straight nose, the jutting chin—they might have been chiseled from stone. "I assume you're accustomed to chores, therefore, but you must be prepared for an extra share at the Manor. In difficult times, we must all of us pull our own weight and then some."
"Absolutely, Mr. Collum. Are these difficult times, then?"
Mr. Collum snorted violently. Or perhaps he sneezed. Nicholas wasn't entirely sure. At any rate, he made a loud, abrupt sound with his nose. "My predecessor, Nicholas—the previous, so-called director of Rothschild's End—took a respectable institution and single-handedly dragged it into disrepute. Spent it to the brink of ruin! Reckless, criminal, indecent behavior! And now the task has fallen to me to raise it up again. Oh, these are indeed difficult times at the Manor, young man. I can vouchsafe you that. But we must rise to the challenge! Do you hear me, Nicholas? Are you awake back there?"
"Yes, sir! 'We must rise to the challenge,' sir!" Nicholas repeated.
"That is correct," Mr. Collum said. "And to do so, every staff member and every child must dutifully carry out his several responsibilities. You will get on well if only you remember this, Nicholas: Perform your duties and be mindful of the rules."
Nicholas was about to assure Mr. Collum that no child was more dutiful or mindful of rules than he was, when the Studebaker stopped at a deserted intersection. Stretching his neck, Nicholas peered left and right. As far as he could tell, they were still in the middle of empty farmland—the middle of nowhere—and the intersection was nothing more than a country crossroads.
Mr. Collum groaned. "Must you, Mr. Pileus? It's quite late, you know."
Mr. Pileus set his hat carefully on the dashboard and climbed out of the automobile. In the beam of the Studebaker's headlamps, he edged closer to the crossroads, where he stood in an attitude of attention, shielding his eyes from the mist, looking down the road to the left. Then he turned and looked right.
Mr. Collum gave a hiss of exasperation. "What does the man expect to see?"
When at last Mr. Pileus was satisfied that no automobiles were hurtling along the road without headlamps—at least not in the immediate vicinity—he hurried back to the Studebaker, jumped in, and roared forward to get through the intersection before the traffic circumstances changed.
"Mr. Pileus!" said Mr. Collum, speaking up to be heard over the horn, which Mr. Pileus was vigorously sounding as they crossed. "I appreciate your caution, truly I do, but have you ever seen any other automobile on this road at night?"
Praise for The Mysterious Benedict Society:"Great cast of characters, lots of cool puzzles and mysteries. This book reminded me of some of the better children's books I grew up with, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Phantom Tollbooth." --Rick Riordan* "Gives readers a reason to fall in love with the series all over again...[with] adventures, danger, cleverness, dry wit, and good-hearted characters at the center of the action."—Booklist, starred review
- Praise for The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
- "Stewart balances the elements of his story beautifully, using the mystery puzzle to drive the plot while heightening tension through encounters with the Spiders and deepening the tenderness by following Nicholas's emotional development...[as] Mysterious Benedict Society fans have come to expect (and love) from master storyteller Stewart."—The Horn Book
- "Stewart fills in the back story on the narcoleptic genius founder of the Mysterious Benedict Society...[with]admirable insight."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Fans will be thrilled with the rich backstory of a beloved character."—School Library Journal
- "Stewart's dry wit and character ingenuity is sprinkled throughout...enjoyable and charming."—Library Media Connection
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2013
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers