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Review of the Day: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

BenedictSociety 205x300 Review of the Day: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee StewartThe Mysterious Benedict Society
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Illustrations by Carson Ellis
Little Brown and Company
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0316057776
Ages 8-13
On shelves now

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.

Other Blog Reviews (Proving That I Am the Last to See It):

Web Reviews:

Misc:

  • I don’t tend to promote book websites (seems a bit like overkill if I do) but The Curiosity Chronicle is rather nicely done. Kudos to the creators.
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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. 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 NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Medarian says:

    I have read it and it is nearly as good if not as good as the Harry Potter series. I can see Trenton lee Stewart becoming the next JK rowling

  2. Nicoleslaw says:

    I have just started reading and it is already better than the Harry Potter series. This might even be the best book I’ve read so far.

  3. Fuse #8 says:

    And I for my part find that the name “Nicoleslaw” makes me inordinately happy.

  4. cece123abc says:

    I have read it and I LOVE it! Way better than Harry Potter! But not as good as Twilight-Stephanie Meyer!

  5. Assume111 says:

    yea, this was FINE book….wonderful actually. Delciious, just like me..UNH-UNH

  6. Nancy says:

    My gifted fourth graders absolutely loved the book when we read it together in the Spring. As fifth graders, they demanded that we read the sequel–we’ll start right after Winter Break.

  7. chocomonkey says:

    My gifted second graders read this book and understood every word! Beat that Nancy! By the way, it was a really good book. I also recomend Twilight for second graders.

  8. poopiechococheese says:

    I found this book had a good plot, but a suckish main character. For one, Reynie kept taking ALL of the credit for discoveries. He figures everything out, all the plans. HE HAS NO FLAWS. ooohh he’s drawn to the Whisperer. Big deal, not a flaw because we all know he’ll resist its pull. Really, he was just plain annoyingly obnoxious and was waayyy too clever for the book’s good. But, then again, I’m a picky reader about characters. Anywho, The Mysterious Benedict Society was absolutely a wonderful book with a wonderful plot.

  9. Gibbs says:

    I read it and it was the best book i EVER READ. I could not get the second book fast enough!!! So far the second book is really good. can’t wait for the third book to come out in Oct. Looks even better. I hope a movie comes out!!! SO BEST BOOK EVER

  10. Narumi says:

    Well first of all- I can see how you could compare this book to “Unfortunate Events” but the Mysterious Benedict Society is truely an incredible book. Took me one day to finish it and that’s saying a lot already! All the characters are well thought out and unique. Reynie may seem “suckish” to some people (poopiechococheese) but he is all in all, the main character after all.

    Ah. And please people, don’t compare this to Twilight. While Stephanie Meyers is an excellent writer, Trenton and her styles are too much different to be compared.
    one last thing. SECOND GRADERS SHOULD NOT READ TWILIGHT. (for those who have read it- shame on you for introducing such a book to them! vampire babies much?)

  11. Sugarplum says:

    This was an excellently suspensful and captivating story,cram-jammed with interesting characters and excitement.I hated when Reynie recognized the Helper, and remembered how he talked about his children. I admit it made me want to weep.

  12. This is my name :D says:

    Ok, now I’m obbsessed with the books!!!!!
    It’s thrilled with saddness, happiness, relief, and excitement! :D !!!!!!

  13. This is my name :D says:

    And I hope they make a movie…

    But that would be a LOT of work… wouldn’t it? :(
    BUT ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE IN HOLLYWOOD!!!!!!!! :D :D :D !!!

  14. Emilie says:

    My name is emilie and i am 6 years old. this was a good book and it my faverit.

  15. Alianora says:

    Join this group on facebook : Petition to Make The Mysterious Benedict Society a Movie!

  16. awesome book says:

    this book is awesome!!!!!!!!!
    i’m close 2 da end of da story and its still exciting

  17. Jessica says:

    The cover issue you pointed out is very strange indeed. On my cover (I believe it to be a much later edition, as I just purchased it a month ago now) Sticky is most certainly “colored in” as you said. I wondered if this was just an unfortunate mistake, so then I Googled the series to observe all the covers (sequels included) and lo and behold, I found the mistake repeated. Not only was I able to locate the original cover you spoke of (one that looks like the whole cover is actually lacking in color, in comparison to mine) but I also found the same error on the sequels’ covers! For shame indeed. I’m not quite sure how they got away with that one, or why they wanted to! But I am very disappointed to say the least.

  18. Jessica says:

    Also, better than the Harry Potter series? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves everyone…I have yet to find a children’s series better than Ms. Rowling’s books, and I doubt I ever will! (Also, I am currently reading, for the first time, the Lemony Snicket series. Thus far I really do not know which I prefer, Snicket or MBS?)

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  1. [...] Bosch, author of The Name of This Book is Secret and its sequels, of Trenton Lee Stewart, who wrote The Mysterious Benedict Society books. All misconceptions, rumors, and confusion about who really wrote these two blockbuster series will [...]