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Truly Devious: Project Based Learning Meets Murder Mystery

It’s unanimous, everyone that reads here is a huge fan of ‘Truly Devious’ by Maureen Johnson.  I found out about the book somewhere on author twitter last year a month or so before Christmas.  I thought it would appeal to my partner because she’s into mysteries, but I also thought it might appeal to the 8 y.o. reader here since it’s in the young adult book category.  When Christmas rolled around, I still hadn’t figured out who the book was for, so it kinda became a present for all of us.  My partner read it first, then No. One, the 8 y.o., and finally me.

The book has a twisted time stream, and takes place in two eras.  The official crime of the book, the one the protagonist originally sets out to solve is a kidnapping/murder that took place at the start of the 20th century.  As the story carries on though, the bodies start to pile up in the present time as well.  Are the new deaths murders or accidents?  Are they related to the original murder decades ago?  That’s part of the mystery!

As an unschooling parent I appreciated the setting of the story.  Ellingham Academy is set in the mountains of Vermont, and while it’s not an unschooling conclave or even a Sudbury school, it has aspects of both.  It’s a project based learning institution where kids register for classes that support their chosen projects.  To me it’s reminiscent of the learning environments Ira Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff wrote about in their nonfiction book, ‘Timeless Learning’.  It helps that the academy is a boarding school so the characters of the book have even greater autonomy.

The book rolls along at a captivating pace that never slows down.  As it evolves, we learn more and more about the various students, but we never enough to reveal the whole story.  Or do we?  The book is the first in a three part series.  It’s followed by ‘The Vanishing Stair’, and this January the final installment will arrive, “The Hand on the Wall.”  The kids and I will be reading the first book as our bedtime story for the next few weeks as we get ready for the new book to turn up after the New Year!

One final note.  This tome is totally a gateway book!  The kid is now interested in all nature of mysteries, and has taken to reading books by other mystery authors like Agatha Christie and K.B. Spangler.


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