Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society
Children's book review by Sarah Denslow
“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” If you’re Reynie Muldoon, the main character of The Mysterious Benedict Society, then the answer is yes. The same goes for George “Sticky” Washington, Kate Weatherall, and Constance Contraire, and this somewhat unlikely band of children is out to do no less than save the world.
Each child has his or her own unique talent: Reynie is a master at solving puzzles; Sticky remembers almost everything he sees or reads; Kate is more than adept at most physical challenges, particularly acrobatics (she ran away to join the circus prior to the beginning of the novel); and Constance, perhaps my favorite, may not have quite the same basic knowledge as the others, but she’s bright, good with rhyming words, and, oh yes, she sure is stubborn.
In keeping with a major theme in children’s literature, all these children are alone, having lost their parents in one way or another. This makes them perfect candidates to join forces with Mr. Benedict, after having passed a series of difficult and somewhat unconventional tests. Each child passes the tests in his or her own unique way, or if they don’t quite pass the tests as expected, they at least make their own special talent known. Kate, for instance, helps the test administrator escape from a mob of angry parents using some items in her red metal bucket that goes everywhere with her, while Constance refuses to answer the questions but instead composes poetry.
Our band of heroes, after a quick briefing on the situation, travel to Nomansan Island and are enrolled in The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, which isn’t so much a school as a headquarters for the narcoleptic narcissist Ledroptha Curtain, who is, of course, trying to take over the world via subliminal messaging. The children are sent to discover just how Mr. Curtain is transmitting his messages and with any luck to defeat him.
The children soon decide to call themselves The Mysterious Benedict Society, and then they’re off to have a number of near escapes, avoid getting into trouble with the cruel and dimwitted Executives who are in charge at the Institute, battle the terrors of a particularly nasty waiting room, and eventually manage to shut down Mr. Curtain’s insidious operation in one of my personal favorite scenes of the book.
Of course, they learn a number of valuable lessons along the way, and Stewart presents them in ways that children should find inviting rather than sanctimonious. For one thing, Mr. Benedict, who promotes all the good values in the book, constantly emphasizes the importance of children, while Mr. Curtain’s continual under estimation of children leads to his downfall. How could a young reader not trust the lessons in this book?
Moreover, the children all have their fears and self-doubts. They don’t always know what the right thing to do is, and they are under enough pressure that the easy, but wrong, choices seem very inviting indeed.
Values are promoted in numerous and sometimes subtle ways. A question about a chess game teaches the importance of trusting yourself. Before they are accepted as part of Mr. Benedict’s team, the children are secretly tested for honesty and willingness to help out someone in need. Teamwork is emphasized since each child has such different abilities, they must work together in order to succeed.
Perhaps the most prominent theme in The Mysterious Benedict Society is the importance of family. The children are all orphaned at the beginning of the book. However, by the end, each child is either reunited with his or her parents (who go to some amazing lengths to get back to their child) or they are adopted by adults who have become like family to them. There are some wonderfully heartwarming scenes where you simply feel the need to hug someone, so even though it is for older readers it would still make a good book to read aloud snuggled up on the couch with your child.
Perseverance is also emphasized, primarily in the character of Constance. Although Constance annoys the other children for much of the book (and that just illustrates the necessity of getting along with someone who drives you crazy sometimes), she is my personal favorite character. She bewilders the others with her constant complaining, tendency to fall asleep, and occasional inability to keep up with what they are talking about (though she hates to admit it). In the end, however, it is her stubbornness and independent spirit that helps save the day.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a delightfully humorous book filled with memorable and often pleasantly quirky characters. The puzzles in it should keep kids on their toes and the plot twists should keep them entertained. At almost 500 pages, it’s quite a long book, but a thoroughly satisfying one.
As is the case with so many good books these days, there is a sequel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey. A third book, Prisoner's Dilemma, has also been published. Not to mention a prequel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, reviewed on this site.
Read more of Sarah's reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.