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We the Children
Table of Contents
About The Book
Benjamin Pratt’s school is about to become the site of a new amusement park. It sounds like a dream come true! But lately, Ben has been wonder if he’s going to like an amusement park in the middle of his town—with all the buses and traffic and eight dollar slices of pizza. It’s going to change everything. And, Ben is not so big on all the new changes in his life, like how his dad has moved out and started living in the marina on what used to be the "family” sailboat. Maybe it would be nice if the school just stayed as it is. He likes the school. Loves it, actually. It’s over 200 years old and sits right on the harbor. The playground has ocean breezes and the classrooms have million dollar views…MILLION DOLLAR views. And after a chance—and final—run-in with the school janitor, Ben starts to discover that these MILLION DOLLAR views have a lot to do with the deal to sell the school property. But, as much as the town wants to believe it, the school does not belong to the local government. It belongs to the CHILDREN and these children have the right to defend it! Don’t think Ben, his friend Jill (and the tag-along Robert) can ruin a multimillion dollar real estate deal? Then you don’t know the history and the power of the Keepers of the School. A suspenseful six book series, book one, We the Children, starts the battle on land and on sea. It’s a race to keep the school from turning into a ticket booth and these kids are about to discover just how threatening a little knowledge can be.
As the ship’s bell clanged through the school’s hallway for the third time, Ben ran his tongue back and forth across the porcelain caps that covered his front teeth, a nervous habit. And he was nervous because he was late. Again.
When she was being the art teacher, Ms. Wilton was full of smiles and fun and two dozen clever ways to be creative with egg cartons and yarn—but in homeroom she was different. More like a drill sergeant. Or a prison guard. Still, maybe if he got to his seat before she took attendance, he might not have to stay after school. Again.
The art room was in the original school building, and Ben was still hurrying through the Annex, the newer part of the school. But the long connecting hallway was empty, so he put on a burst of speed. He banged through the double doors at a dead run, slowed a little for the last corner, then sprinted for the art room.
Halfway there, he stopped in his tracks.
“Mr. Keane—are you okay?”
It was a stupid question. The janitor was dragging his left leg as he used the handle of a big dust mop like a crutch, trying to get himself through the doorway into his workroom. His face was pale, twisted with pain.
“Help me . . . sit down.” His breathing was ragged, his voice raspy.
Ben gulped. “I should call 9-1-1.”
“Already did, and I told ’em where to find me,” the man growled. “Just get me . . . to that chair.”
With one arm across Ben’s shoulders, Mr. Keane groaned with each step, then eased himself into a chair by the workbench.
“Sh-should I get the school nurse?”
Mr. Keane’s eyes flashed, and his shock of white hair was wilder and messier than usual. “That windbag? No—I broke my ankle or somethin’ on the stairs, and it hurts like the devil. And it means I’m gonna be laid up the rest of the school year. And you can stop lookin’ so scared. I’m not mad at you, I’m just . . . mad.”
As he snarled that last word, Ben saw his yellowed teeth. And he remembered why all the kids at Oakes School tried to steer clear of old man Keane.
A distant siren began to wail, then a second one. Edgeport wasn’t a big town, so the sound got louder by the second.
From under his bushy eyebrows, Mr. Keane looked up into Ben’s face. “I know you, don’t I?”
Ben nodded. “You helped me and my dad scrape the hull of our sailboat two summers ago. Over at Parson’s Marina.” He remembered that Mr. Keane had been sharp and impatient the entire week, no fun at all.
“Right—you’re the Pratt kid.”
“I’m Ben . . . Benjamin.”
The janitor kept looking into his face, and Ben felt like he was in a police lineup. Then the man suddenly nodded, as if he was agreeing with someone.
He straightened his injured leg, gasping in pain, pushed a hand into his front pocket, then pulled it back out.
“Stick out your hand.”
Startled, Ben said, “What?”
“You hard a’ hearing? Stick out your hand!”
Ben did, and Mr. Keane grabbed hold and pressed something into his palm, quickly closing the boy’s fingers around it. Then he clamped Ben’s fist inside his leathery grip. Ben wanted to yank his hand loose and run, but he wasn’t sure he could break free . . . and part of him didn’t want to. Even though he was frightened, he was curious, too. So he just gulped and stood there, eyes wide, staring at the faded blue anchor tattooed on the man’s wrist.
“This thing in your hand? I’ve been carryin’ it around with me every day for forty-three years. Tom Benton was the janitor here before me, and the day he retired, he handed it to me. And before Tom Benton, it was in Jimmy Conklin’s pocket for thirty-some years, and before that, the other janitors had it—every one of ’em, all the way back to the very first man hired by Captain Oakes himself when he founded the school. Look at it . . . but first promise that you’ll keep all this secret.” He squinted up into Ben’s face, his blue eyes bright and feverish. “Do you swear?”
Ben’s mouth was dry. He’d have said anything to get this scary old guy with bad breath to let go of him. He whispered, “I swear.”
Mr. Keane released his hand, and Ben opened his fingers.
And then he stared. It was a large gold coin with rounded edges, smooth as a beach pebble.
Outside, the sirens were closing in fast.
“See the writing? Read it.”
With shaky hands, Ben held the coin up to catch more light. The words stamped into the soft metal had been worn away to shadows, barely visible.
He read aloud, still whispering. “‘If attacked, look nor’-nor’east from amidships on the upper deck.’” He turned the coin over. “‘First and always, my school belongs to the children. DEFEND IT. Duncan Oakes, 1783.’”
Mr. Keane’s eyes flashed. “You know about the town council, right? How they sold this school and all the land? And how they’re tearin’ the place down in June? If that’s not an attack, then I don’t know what is.”
He stopped talking and sat still. He seemed to soften, and when he spoke, for a moment he sounded almost childlike. “I know I’m just the guy who cleans up and all, but I love it here, with the wind comin’ in off the water, and bein’ able to see halfway to England. And all the kids love it too—best piece of coast for thirty miles, north or south. And this place? This is a school, and Captain Oakes meant it to stay that way, come blood or blue thunder. And I am not giving it up without a fight. And I am not giving this coin to that new janitor—I told him too much already.” His face darkened, and he spat the man’s name into the air. “Lyman—you know who he is?”
Ben nodded. The assistant custodian was hard to miss, very tall and thin. He had been working at the school since right after winter vacation.
“Lyman’s a snake. Him, the principal, the superintendent—don’t trust any of ’em, you hear?”
The principal? Ben thought. And the superintendent? What do they have to do with any of this?
The sirens stopped, and Ben heard banging doors, then commotion and shouting in the hallway leading from the Annex.
The janitor’s breathing was forced, and his face had gone chalky white. But he grabbed Ben’s wrist with surprising strength and pushed out one more sentence. “Captain Oakes said this school belongs to the kids. So that coin is yours now, and the fight is yours too—yours!”
The hairs on Ben’s neck stood up. Fight? What fight? This is crazy!
Two paramedics burst into the room, a woman and a man, both wearing bright green gloves. A policeman and Mrs. Hendon, the school secretary, stood out in the hallway.
“Move!” the woman barked. “We’re getting him out of here!”
Mr. Keane let go of Ben’s wrist, and Ben jumped to one side, his heart pounding, the coin hidden in his hand.
The woman gave the janitor a quick exam, then nodded at her partner and said, “He’s good to go—just watch the left leg.”
And as they lifted the custodian onto the gurney and then strapped him down flat, the old man’s eyes never left Ben’s face.
As they wheeled him out, Mrs. Hendon came into the workroom and said, “I’m glad you were here to help him, Ben. Are you all right?”
“Sure, I’m fine.”
“Well, you’d better get along to class now.”
Ben picked up his backpack and headed toward the art room. And just before he opened the door, both sirens began wailing again.
Reading Group Guide
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WE THE CHILDREN
Book One of Benjamin Pratt & the Keepers of the School
by Andrew Clements
1. One of the first things readers learn about Ben is that he has caps on his front teeth. What happened to his front teeth? How does this experience affect his feelings about saving Oakes School?
2. What does Mr. Keane give Ben? Who owned this object before Mr. Keane? Why does Mr. Keane believe the school is about to be attacked?
3. Who was Duncan Oakes? What objects in and around the school remind students of Captain Oakes? Does your school have paintings, statues, trophies, or other items that help students remember its past? Do you ever think about these items? If so, describe one or more of these items and what thoughts, ideas, or inspiration they bring to you.
4. In Chapter 3, Ben thinks to himself, “Welcome to the exciting new theme of Benjamin Pratt's life-change.” List three changes about which Ben is thinking. How does Ben feel about all these changes? Is change a theme in your life? If so, in what ways?
5. Who is Mr. Lyman? Why is he different from past janitors at Oakes School? What secrets does Jill discover about Mr. Lyman? In addition to Mr. Lyman, from whom do Ben and Jill keep Mr. Keane's coin and last words secret? Do you think this is a good decision? Why or why not?
6. How does Ben feel about sailing an Optimist? How long has he been sailing? What other student at Oakes races sailboats? Are his attitudes toward sailing and school the same as Ben's? Explain your answer.
7. How has his parents' separation affected Ben? Describe Ben's different relationships with his mom and his dad. What evidence in the story suggests that Ben is hoping his parents will get back together? What advice might you give Ben about his parents' separation?
8. Why do Ben and Jill want to save Oakes School? What arguments could be made for and against the new amusement park? How would you feel if a developer wanted to build a new amusement park in your town? How would you feel if your school was at risk of being demolished to make room for another type of new building?
9. How does Ben's sailing experience help him figure out the meaning of the mysterious instructions on the coin and how they relate to Oakes school? Where is the “rose on the floor”? To what do the rose and coin lead Ben and Jill?
10. What do Ben and Jill find inside the square of pine? What do you think the inscription means? Do you think Duncan Oakes's idea to entrust the school to the children was a good one? Why or why not?
11. On the morning of the race, how does Ben prepare himself and his Optimist? What observations does he make about the race spectators, including his mom and dad? What does Ben love about sailing? Do you participate in a sport or other activity that makes you feel similar to the way Ben feels when he is out on the water? Does this feeling help you in other aspects of your life? If so, in what way?
12. On the last page of the book, Ben, his mom, and Jill discuss Ben's rescue of Robert. Ben tells them, “maybe he's the one who rescued me.” Did Ben need rescuing? What do you think Ben learned about himself from the experience of saving Robert? How do you think the rescue experience has affected his feelings about being a “Keeper of the School”?
WRITING AND RESEARCH ACTIVITIES
I. WE THE CHILDREN
A. Readers are drawn right into history with the book title, We the Children, a twist on the first words of the preamble to America's Constitution. Go to the library or online to learn more about the Constitution, the people who wrote it, and the reason the document was created. Then, write a paragraph explaining why you think Andrew Clements chose to name his story this way.
B. Like the writers of the Constitution, Duncan Oakes and his community could not have foreseen exactly what would happen to his school and town in the future. With friends or classmates, make a list of at least twenty changes to life in America that Duncan Oakes probably could not have imagined, such as cell phones and places like Disney World. Take a class vote to see which change people think would have surprised Duncan Oakes most of all.
C. How do you think not knowing what the future would hold affected what was written on the copper tablet found by Ben and Jill? In the character of a present-day historian examining the copper tablet, write a one-to-three paragraph report explaining why you think the message on the tablet was written in such a mysterious way.
D. Write a one-page letter to students one hundred years in the future. Think of an important message you would like to share, or an important object you would like future schoolchildren of the future to notice. As you write, make sure to consider what the recipients of your letter might be able to understand about the technology and history of the Twenty First century. What might be a good place to store your letter?
E. Interview a grandparent or other older adult about what life was like when he or she was your age. Here are some possible questions: What was life like without cell phones, handheld music devices, the Internet? What was television like? How did they get news and information? How did they make plans with friends? What was their school like? What did they do after school? What was their city or town like? Do they think life is better or worse for kids today than it was when they were young? Prepare a short oral report to share information from your interview with friends or classmates. Or collect all of the interviews from friends and classmates into an oral history notebook to keep in your school library.
II. BUILT INTO HISTORY
A. Much about American history can be learned from its buildings and architecture. Go to the library or online to learn more about historic buildings in America. (Hint: Start by visiting the U.S. General Services Administration Historic Buildings website (http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/contentView.do?contentType=GSA_OVERVIEW&contentId=14925), or the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/hhmap.html. Make a list of five buildings you would like to visit and why. Or write a short speech or newspaper-style article explaining why you feel it is important (or not important) to preserve historic buildings. Use examples from your research and quotes from We the Children to support your argument.
B. Ben lives in a coastal New England town, full of maritime history. Visit Smith's Master Index to Maritime Museums (http://www.maritimemuseums.net) and find a museum of interest to you. Plan a trip to visit this museum. How would you get there? Where would you stay? Where would you eat? What museum exhibits will you visit? Are there other historic sites near the museum you will also visit? Write up your itinerary to share with friends, family members, or classmates.
C. In what year was your school built and what grades were taught at that time? What was the population of your town in the year your school was built? What changes have been made to the school building or its purpose? Has your town or city population changed? In what important ways is your town now different from the way it was when your school was new? Compile your answers to these questions, and others of your choice, into an informational booklet about your school and its place in the community.
D. On a large sheet of poster board, create a sign headlined “Welcome to Oakes School.” Based on details from the novel, complete the poster with an illustrated list of highlights, points of interest, and other details you might post at the entrance to a historical school building.
E. Make a “top ten” list of reasons to save Oakes School, and another list of reasons to allow the theme park to be build. Divide your class into two groups, to debate for and against the demolition of Oakes School to build an amusement park.
III. KEEPERS OF THE SCHOOL
A. Before he dies, Mr. Keane tells Ben how the coin was passed down from previous janitors dating back to the time of Duncan Oakes. In the character of Mr. Keane, or another past janitor, write a journal entry describing what happened on the day you were given the coin and how you felt about your new responsibility.
B. Imagine you are Thomas Vining, Louis Hendley, or Abigail Baynes, one of the three children who signed the sheet of copper found by Ben and Jill. In the character of one of these children, write a journal entry describing how you felt about putting your name to this document, and why you feel this might be important in terms of your hopes and dreams for the future of yourself and your town.
C. You are a student at Oakes School. Ben and Jill have told you about the coin and the discoveries they have made, and have asked you to help them with their mission to save the school. Write an outline describing the plan you would suggest that they follow.
D. In the character of Ben or Jill, write a poem or song lyrics encouraging your classmates to help save Oakes School. Begin with the words, “We the children”
E. Imagine We the Children is being made into a movie! Draw the movie poster featuring Ben and Jill fighting to save Oakes School. Include an exciting sentence or two to encourage school kids to watch the film.
Guide prepared by Stasia Ward Kehoe, a freelance writer and author specializing in the interests of young readers. She holds a master's degree in Performance Studies from New York University, and teaches writing and theatre to elementary school students in western Washington.
About The Illustrator
Adam Stower has a rich imagination and loves fantasy and adventure stories. He studied illustration at the Norwich School of Art and Design and at the University of Brighton, and lives with his daughter in Brighton, England.
- Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (April 6, 2010)
- Length: 160 pages
- ISBN13: 9781416938866
- Grades: 2 - 5
- Ages: 7 - 10
- Lexile ® 860 The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
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Raves and Reviews
This first novel in the new Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School series centers on young
Benjamin’s efforts to save his historic elementary school from amusement-park developers. The school was founded in the late eighteenth century by an eccentric sea captain, Duncan Oaks. In their attempt to save the school, Benjamin and his friend Jill uncover a long string of clues and discover that the school’s janitor is not as innocent as he appears. Jill and Benjamin have still not fit together all the missing pieces toward the end of the story, when Clements sends Benjamin on an exciting side trip to a sailing regatta, where he competes and saves a fellow racer. Several other youth novels feature kids facing off against greedy, nefarious developers. What sets this title apart is the skillful way that Clements conveys Benjamin’s growing appreciation of his seaside hometown’s landscape and history. Readers will look forward to finding out how the disparate clues come together in coming installments. — Todd Morning, BOOKLIST, March 15, 2010
Sixth-grader Ben Pratt is thrust into a mystery-adventure when his school’s janitor shoves a gold coin in his hand, passing on the responsibility to save Oakes School from developers. Captain Oakes gave the school to the community back in 1783; its original building overlooks the Massachusetts town’s harbor. But the land has been sold, and buildings will be razed to make way for a theme park. With his parents recently separated and new living arrangements—one week at home with mom, the next on dad’s sailboat—Ben has had enough change. He and Jill Acton, a friend with brainpower and potential, embark on a campaign to stop the attack. Veteran Clements ably sets up his planned six-volume series with topical problems, convincing, likable characters and intriguing extra details. Ben is an enthusiastic sailor; this installment concludes with an exciting race and near-drowning. The author of Frindle (1996) knows his audience and sets his story in a world of cell phones, class assignments and afterschool rules that will seem familiar to his readers. They will welcome this new demonstration of kid power. Stower’s art unseen. (Fiction. 8-12) -- KIRKUS, March 15, 2010, STAR
This suspenseful novel, which launches Clements's (No Talking) Benjamin Pratt & the Keepers of the School series, catapults Ben into a mystery surrounding his seaside school. Founded by a Revolutionary War–era sea captain, the school is slated to be demolished to make way for an amusement park. Just before he dies, the longtime custodian gives the sixth grader a gold coin imprinted with the founder's declaration that the school “belongs to the children” and cryptic instructions on how to “defend” it. Ben and his friend Jill set out to decode the message, a process that involves some intriguing questions and maneuverings. Clements has the makings of an action-lover's dream scenario: a school setting full of history and secrets, a tense kids-versus-adults dynamic, and a sailing race to boot. Some may be disappointed by how little is revealed, though, and the climactic race, while exciting, ends the story abruptly. Characteristically, Clements probes his hero's personal quandaries, as Ben deals with his parents' separation, his growing feelings for Jill, and the potential loss of his beloved school. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, March 22, 2010
We the Children [Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School]
by Andrew Clements, illus. by Adam Stower
Intermediate Atheneum 146 pp.
4/10 978-1-4169-3886-6 $14.99
The always popular Andrew Clements begins a new mystery series set on the New England coast. It starts with a bang, as the injured school custodian presses a mysterious coin on Ben, making him swear to keep it secret, and dies. Words on the coin lead Ben to take a second look at the imminent plan to tear down his old school to build an amusement park, and he begins working with a fellow student, Jill, to try to figure out the coin, and who the sneaky new custodian is. Ben and Jill find a clue that instructs them to follow five steps in order. This is very much a series entry, as the book ends before any of the clues have been followed. It's light stuff, but a side story featuring a sailing race and the backstory of Ben's newly separated parents give it more substance, and there's a lot of child appeal in a novel where kids are the appointed rescuers in a quest handed down through time. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE
Sixth-grader Ben is racing off to class when he finds the janitor, Mr. Keane, in severe pain. The man gives him a gold coin from 1783 that has been passed down through the years by loyal janitors and can be traced to the first man hired by the founder of Captain Duncan Oakes School. It reads, “First and always/My school belongs to the children./Defend it.” A few hours later, he is dead. The town council has sold the school to a big company to build a theme park, and there’s something very fishy about the deal. With the words on the coin as his first clue, Ben studies the history of his school, which is 50 feet from the water’s edge in a Massachusetts coastal town, and he convinces his friend Jill to help him explore it. Meanwhile, Ben is adjusting to his parents’ separation and living at home with his Mom and on the sailboat with his dad. Expressive, dynamic full-page and spot illustrations rendered in pen and ink heighten the action. An exciting ending sequence features Ben participating in a sailboat race and becoming a reluctant hero. There are many questions to be answered in the next book. Good writing by an experienced author, likable characters, and a mystery to be solved make this a solid choice.–SLJ, May 2010
Awards and Honors
- Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award Nominee
- Maine Student Book Award Reading List
- Great Stone Face Book Award Nominee (NH)
- Massachusetts Children's Book Award Nominee
- Parents' Choice Gold Award Winner
- Crown Award Nominee (TX)
Resources and Downloads
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Book Cover Image (jpg): We the Children
Author Photo (jpg): Andrew Clements
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More books from this illustrator: Adam Stower
More books in this series: Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School
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