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The Puzzling World of Winston Breen: Eric Berlin

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is a book that took me back to my childhood, in the best possible way. Winston Breen is a boy who loves puzzles. Any kind of puzzles. Words, numbers, codes, pictures - it doesn't matter. If he sees a puzzle, he wants to solve it. And he's quite good at solving puzzles, too. Thus it's a perfect fit when a birthday gift that he buys for his younger sister turns out to hold a hidden puzzle. Before they know it, Winston and his sister Katie are on a treasure hunt with a mis-matched group of adult competitors (including the town librarian!).

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen reminded me a bit of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The characters aren't as complex as those in The Westing Game, but as in that book we have an unlikely group of people, working to solve a puzzle left behind as the inheritance of a wealthy and creative man. The two books also share a certain timeless feel. Yes, a cell phone does play a small part in the mystery faced by Winston, but the clues involved were planted twenty-five years earlier. The quest starts at the town library. Winston and Katie live in a small town where middle school kids ride their bikes around unescorted and hang out at the local pizza joint. I felt like I could have lived in Glenville. There's a handy map of the town in the front of the book, too.

The mystery in The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is satisfying. Mostly it's a straightforward quest, but there are unanswered questions about who has been committing various robberies, and who has been harassing the town librarian. There are false accusations, unexpected threats, and late night adventures. Winston is a three-dimensional (if somewhat geeky) character, with a believable sibling relationship, and just the right dose of insecurities. Here are a few examples that will give you a feel for Eric Berlin's writing, and in particular for the workings of Winston's mind:

Most of Winston's brain was taken up with the idea that he would soon be hunting for hidden treasure. He was barked at by his teachers for not paying attention. His parents had to say things to him two or three or four times before the words penetrated his ears. Watching television, he realized he was halfway through some show or other and had not the slightest idea what was going on. He might as well have been watching a fish tank. Saturday seemed as distant and unreachable as China. (Chapter 7)

Winston and his sister walked for a time in silence, each in an invisible, vibrating pocket of excitement. (Chapter 7)

Winston looked over at her and was surprised by what he saw. Her mouth hung slightly open and her eyes were shiny, staring at an invisible point on the wall. This was someone in the middle of having a Big Idea. Winston thought if you x-rayed her head at just that moment, you would see a number of gears spinning very fast. (Chapter 11)

Eric Berlin is a puzzle author (you can find his crossword puzzles in the New York Times, for example), and his ease with words stands out. What also stands out is the author's genuine love for all things puzzle-related. This book could only have been written by someone who loves puzzles. It is chock-full of puzzles. There are puzzles that are central to the story, of course, but also, sprinkled throughout the book, extra puzzles for the reader to solve, as Winston solves them. Fill-it-ins and word problems and scrambled words and the like. You can fill in the puzzles right there in your book, or (as explained in a handy foreword) you can download printable versions of the puzzles and keep your book pristine. The puzzles range quite a bit in difficulty and in required skill-set, and there should be at least one to appeal to each reader. I know that I would have absolutely adored this book when I was 11 years old, in the midst of my own puzzle phase. Even as an adult reader, I found myself spending a lot more time on this book that I initially anticipated, because I was compelled to stop and work out most of the puzzles.

If the early signs of interest in Winston's puzzle blog (with new puzzles posted at least once a week) are any indication, Winston is due for a long and productive fictional life. I hope so, because I would certainly enjoy hanging out with him again. Sadly, the book is not due out until September. But I'm bringing you the review now, so that you can start to get to know Winston online.

Book: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen
Author: Eric Berlin. See also Winston's website, with book information, a puzzle blog, and downloadable puzzle set from the book.
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Original Publication Date: September 2007
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Advance Review Copy from the publisher, at the author's request. Eric was on the Middle Grade Fiction judging committee for the Cybils with me.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.