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2009 Standouts in Teen Fiction

Catching Fire
By Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2009

The Last Olympian
By Rick Riordan
Disney Hyperion, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Little Brown, 2009

“Maybe we should acquire a taste for bittersweet,” said Reynie with a grin.
“Then everything would feel wonderful.”
“That’s stupid,” Constance snipped. “If it felt wonderful,
then it wouldn’t be bittersweet, would it?”
Reynie only shrugged. He wasn’t at all sure about that.

-The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Looking back on my favorite middle grade and young adult books of 2009, it seems fitting that two, The Last Olympian and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, are bittersweet series finales. My choices, however, aren’t all “Auld Lang Syne” in spirit. This year also brought us Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins’s fantastic follow-up to The Hunger Games.

The conclusion of Rick Riordan’s immensely popular Percy Jackson & the Olympians series certainly falls under the category of wonderfully bittersweet. Truth be told, I’d become so attached to Riordan’s characters that I opened the cover with a certain amount of dread, knowing that the adventures of Percy and his fellow demi-gods would be drawing to a close. For the uninitiated, Percy Jackson is the son of a mortal mother and Poseidon, God of the Sea. He spends his summers at Camp Half-Blood, where his fellow campers all have an immortal parent. His best friends are Annabeth, daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr. Oh, and Mount Olympus is located on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. Not exactly Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but Riordan does a remarkable job making the gods, goddesses, and beasts come to life for a new generation of readers.

For the final installment, Riordan doesn’t bog down the story introducing new sub-plots and red herrings. The opening line, “The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car,” sets an action-packed tone that doesn’t relent. The bulk of the book is spent with Camp Half-Blood defending Manhattan from the more powerful Titan army. The Titan leader Kronos has reanimated in the body of a former camper, and is looking to destroy Mount Olympus and everything that stands in his path. One of the strengths of the Percy Jackson series is the first-person narration. In the face of these insurmountable odds and attacks by mythological creatures, Percy sounds age-appropriate. He isn’t afraid to give the immortals a little sass, even when trying to get the river gods of the East and Hudson Rivers to help in his cause:

“HEY!” I shouted in my best underwater voice. The sound echoed in the darkness. “I heard you guys are so polluted you’re embarrassed to show your faces. Is that true?”

A cold current of water rippled through the bay, churning up plumes of garbage and silt.

“I heard the East River is more toxic,” I continued, “but the Hudson smells worse. Or is it the other way around?”

The water shimmered. Something powerful and angry was watching me now. I could sense its presence…or maybe two presences.

The remarkable feat of the Percy Jackson series is that there isn’t a book among the five that can be pinpointed as the weak link. Each book propels the larger story forward, with Riordan maintaining the action and humor throughout. With The Last Olympian, the action is ramped up to great effect. The final battle between the gods and Titans is the centerpiece of the book, providing an incredibly satisfying ending to Percy’s adventures. The Last Olympian leaves the reader glad to have taken the journey, and hopeful that the ending leaves an opening for more adventures with other Half-Blood campers.

Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series also came to a close this year, with the October release of the third installment, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The witty and heartfelt story revolves around a group of four children with exceptional problem-solving skills. Reynie Muldoon leads the group with his common sense approach and willingness to see all angles of a problem. Sticky Washington’s photographic memory, Kate Weatherall’s MacGyver-like inventive skills, and Constance Contraire’s blossoming mind-reading ability round out the group. They are brought together by Nicholas Benedict, who needs their help to stop his evil twin brother, Ledroptha Curtain and his mind-controlling invention, The Whisperer.

The importance of family is a main thrust of all three books, with each of the children having dealt with abandonment issues in some form. Under the care of Mr. Benedict, the children form a bond and come to appreciate each other’s talents, even the prickly poet Constance. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma finds the children in their final showdown with Ledroptha Curtain, and each of the children does their part to save the world. The book is full of tense action sequences, most of them involving the children trying to escape from Curtain’s henchmen, the Ten Men, named for the briefcases they carry, each with ten ways to seriously injure a person. After being captured by the Ten Men and brought to a deserted prison, they come face to face with their nemesis Mr. Curtain:

But here he was in all his creepy glory, the spitting image of Mr. Benedict, save for his haughty expression, his more carefully combed white hair, and the slightly different plaid pattern of his green coat. He was squatting, not sitting, in his wheelchair, his forearms resting atop his knees – and he was silently circling them like a shark around its prey. His cold green eyes darted from face to face. He licked his lips, then pressed them tightly together, suppressing a smile.

While the children face the perils of Mr. Curtain and his Ten Men, there is also an undercurrent of melancholy in this last book. Each of them is aware that reaching their goal will change the dynamic of the group. As contrary Constance points out, “What will we have to talk about?…. There aren’t any problems anymore!” But with the conclusion of this winning series, we’re left knowing that the bonds that have been forged by the Mysterious Benedict Society will remain long after the crime fighting and intrigue have subsided. While the first book in the series remains the best of the trilogy, Trenton Lee Stewart has crafted a heartwarming end to the adventures of Reyne, Sticky, Kate, and Constance.

To say that Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire is yet another successful sequel to be published this year is an understatement. This is one of the rare instances of the follow-up improving upon the first book, and The Hunger Games is an exceptional book in its own right. The dystopian series, which is to be a trilogy, is set in the country of Panem, which is divided into twelve districts and the Capitol. Each year the districts must select two representatives to send to the Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death battle that is broadcast on television. The cruelty of the Games is not lost on Katniss Everdeen, who sacrifices herself when her younger sister Prim is chosen to represent her district. Her success in the Games catapults her to nationwide renown, and Catching Fire opens with her visiting the districts on a victory tour.

Katniss’s popularity and open hostility for the leader of Panem, President Snow, gives hope to a small uprising in one of the districts, a rebellion which spreads throughout the country. Looking to quell the rebellion, President Snow announces that the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Games will feature winners from all the districts, with the hope that Katniss will face a violent end. Joining her in the ring is her fellow champion Peeta, who is now more to her than a competitor she must outlast (the book continues the series’ touching subplot of love found in the least likely place). While the first Games made Katniss distrustful of Peeta, now she hopes to keep him alive as her romantic feelings begin to grow.

Collins builds upon the foundation laid in The Hunger Games and explores the grotesque fascination that the citizens of the Capitol have with watching the violence and melodrama on their televisions. In the hands of a lesser writer, the obvious metaphor for our culture’s obsession with reality TV would seem heavy-handed. But Collins uses the right mix of action and allegory to keep the story from being too weighed down. As a narrator, Katniss expresses her disgust at the spectacle of the Games but also knows that the survival of those she loves depends on her survival in the ring. As she graduates the first round of battle in the ring, she notes:

Around the Cornucopia, the ground appears to be bleeding; the water has purple stains. Bodies lie on the ground and float in the sea, but at this distance, with everyone dressed exactly the same, I can’t tell who lives or dies. All I can tell is that some of the tiny blue figures still battle.

Besides the riveting action sequences, the strength of both books (especially Catching Fire) is the characterization of Katniss. As a heroine she has both the smarts and quickness to stay alive, but also a vulnerability that allows us to identify with her. While the surprise ending leaves Katniss in yet another precarious situation, it is her confusion, anger, and desire to protect her loved ones that sticks with you. Thankfully, Catching Fire ends with just enough resolution and a cliffhanger to make us pull our hair out until the next book is published. And if the pattern holds, Suzanne Collins will deliver another riveting entry in the ongoing saga of the Hunger Games.

While fans have more of Katniss’s adventures to look forward to, the end of the Percy Jackson and Mysterious Benedict Society series is a wonderful kind of bittersweet. Both Rick Riordan and Trenton Lee Stewart crafted final installments that remained true to the characters that so many readers fell in love with. While it’s not easy to say goodbye to such truly entertaining books, we can do so knowing that they went out with a bang.

___
Kristin Brower Walker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in Cooperstown, NY where she still can’t escape Red Sox fans.

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