Review of the Day: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
How do librarians decide what children’s book they want to read next? Well, there are professional reviews, online reviews, and good old-fashioned word of mouth. And when it came to “The Mysterious Benedict Society”, I picked up this 486-page tome, turned it about, and then needed a quickie confirmation from somebody as to whether or not I should shell out a significant portion of time to read this puppy. As it happened, a librarian I knew and trusted assured me that it wasn’t all that good and that I shouldn’t waste my days. Fair enough. I gave away my copy and decided to forget all about it. But then the book’s name kept cropping up left and right. Oh, I should really read it! Oh, it’s really good! Oh, you haven’t read it? What’s wrong with you? Eventually, the pressure got to be too much. I couldn’t take it any more. As far as I could ascertain I was the only children’s librarian in the WORLD who hadn’t read “The Mysterious Benedict Society”, and that was going to have to change. So I borrowed a library copy, took it home, and fell in love. Once in a while you just want to read a book that’s fun. This book is precisely that. Smart and thoroughly a good good read.
Reynie Muldoon doesn’t think of himself as extraordinary. He thinks of himself as weird and out of place. An orphan, Reynie and his tutor one day spot an advertisement that reads, “ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?” He is, as it happens, and that means taking a series of tests. Odd tests. Odd, increasingly peculiar tests that go beyond the classroom, or even the realm of the normal. By the end of the puzzles Reynie has passed, as have three other rather remarkable children. Sticky Washington is a bit of a bookworm, but the kind of kid who never forgets a single fact that he reads. Kate Wetherall is an athletic type who carries a handy bucket with her wherever it is that she goes. And Constance Contraire is very small, very rude, and very stubborn. Together, these kids have been recruited by a Mr. Benedict to infiltrate the very prestigious Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and discover what it is that the school’s devious head is planning. They know that it’s evil and dangerous, but beyond that they are out of information. So it is that our four heroes become spies and set out to save the world using their very individual abilities.
I’ve heard this book referred to as two different stories smooshed together into a single tale. That’s not exactly how I’d chose to describe it, but it’s a fair assessment. This actually isn’t a problem either. If you like the first portion then you are bound to like the second. I was fond of the writing too. Never twee or coy, it comes right to the point of things without sacrificing emotion or character. It can get away with sentences like, “She announced her age right away, for children consider their ages every bit as important as their names.” because they are straightforward and true. Stewart can get stuff across without a bunch of overwrought flowery language. “Their mouths went dry as bones,” needs no further explanation. And somehow this text makes the horrific elements of this story all the more frightening. We know that there is a place called The Waiting Room in which children are placed and very bad things happen to them. When we actually learn what the room consists of, it’s bad but not as awful as our minds may have lead us to imagine. Stewart works best when he plays off our unspoken fears. A chapter merely called “The Whisperer” shows a chair with arm braces, rivets, and a scary helmet. For the faint of heart the mere suggestion of the chair might frighten them. Nothing is as bad as it seems in this book, though, so maybe it’s a good thing that Stewart lightens initial horrors with mundane explanations.
It’s very hard to create a protagonist hero that’s believably clever and likable. Yet our hero, Reynie, is exactly the kind of kid you want to see in a leader. He impressed me right from the start when, on going to take a test, he sees that a girl has lost the one pencil they were allowed to bring, and merely snaps his in half to help her out. There is comfort to be had too in a hero that is smart enough not to fall for the traps the author has set for him. Constance seems a pain when we meet her, but Reynie is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt when the other characters and even the reader won’t. Characters much prefer to feel what their readers are feeling, so I am always impressed when one goes against the grain in a satisfying fashion.
Comparing the books to “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is inevitable, what with clever kids using their wits to outsmart the buffoons around them. I usually shy away from comparing anything to Snicket’s series, if only because I have only the greatest respect for those books, but Stewart does something with “Mysterious Benedict Society” that is worthy of note and similar to Lemony. In “Unfortunate Events” the Baudelaire children eventually have to make some ethical choices that leave them uncertain of whether or not they can be considered “good” any longer. Stewart also takes into consideration the moral implications of placing children in danger, even if it is for the sake of saving the world. If Mr. Benedict is a good man, then how can we approve of him taking a group of kids he hardly knows so as to send them willy-nilly into harm’s way? It is comforting to watch Mr. Benedict wrestle with this choice. And when the danger heats up, he even finds a way to try to get the kids away from the school. Much of the book is concerned with making it clear that kids have a right to DO what is right, and pay the consequences for those choices. It’s not a message you hear very often.
In terms of the sequel, one person I discussed the book with said of it, “I don’t feel I need to go back to that world.” I agree, in a way. Stewart wraps up his loose ends nicely. Unlike some series for kids, you aren’t left with many holes or gaps in the plot. There is certainly room for a follow-up, but if you don’t read it you won’t feel you’ve missed something. The important thing to remember is that clever kids like clever tales. For children who like everything from “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin to The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, by Eric Berlin, this is the book for them. Consistently fun and fine, the book whizzes through its 400+ pages so fast that you’ll be shocked at how quickly you find yourself at the end.
Notes on the Book Flap: I love that there’s a Morse Code message hidden on the flaps. Of course, if any child looses the cover, they won’t be able to solve the mystery on the final page of the book. Hopefully that will not happen often.
Notes on the Cover: Whoo-boy. All right now this… this is a problem. On the outset it looks like a pretty cool cover, right? The illustrations both here and inside are done by one Carson Ellis, who has drawn album covers for bands like The Decemberists n’ such. That is all well and good. So I’m admiring the cover when I notice something. Maybe this got changed in subsequent printings of the book but if so they certainly haven’t changed it anywhere online. I am referring to the character of Sticky Washington. Sticky has dark skin in the book. Now look on the cover. It took me a while to figure out why I wasn’t seeing Sticky there. I was, but they’ve bleached him out. In short, they made Sticky white. What on earth? Now whose brilliant idea was this? “Hey guys, about that kid who isn’t white? Why don’t we just forget to color him in when we print the book? That’s cool, right?” Ye gods, this is an oversight! Look at him! He’s paler than Constance! Talk about a bad jacket art move. For shame.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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