(Preface to Post)
So, I’m always a little behind the times as far as pop culture phenomenons go. The Kid Brother and I didn’t start reading Harry Potter til the 3rd book was out. I just began watching The West Wing like a month ago and fell in love (and am now on the 6th season). I was a year or two behind the times on Firefly, too. The list goes on.
This is all to explain why I am about to review a book that was hot stuff last year (2007), a book that was on the NY TImes bestseller list and won all sorts of awards and basically is known about and has been judged by everyone who would want to know about or judge it. So basically, I’m not looking to move any mountains or cause any great stir with this book review. But I read a book I liked and wanted to comment on (the latter being a more important reason to review, I think) so here I go.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart
Young Adult adventure, published by Little, Brown and Company
Reynie Muldoon sets off one day to take an important and mysterious test. He and the other children do not know what the test will be or what they will win if they pass, they are all simply answering an ad in the newspaper: “Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?”
And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime. The test-takers are soon narrowed down to four extraordinary children: Reynie, George “Sticky” Washington, Kate “The Great Kate Weather Machine” Wetherall, and Constance Contraire. These kids all possess an impressive combination of intelligence, bravery, and that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a hero, which is good because they pretty much have to save the entire world from Evil.
The plot is perfectly fine, clever but nothing to write home about (evil mastermind, lots of minions, the kids go undercover at a secret institution to infiltrate the minions and defeat the evil mastermind and his evil machine) but the way in which Stewart has crafted this world and this story is fantastic. The book is oddball and clever, filled with puzzles and trickery and fun, memorable characters. The puzzles are such that the reader can play along and applaud Reynie for his wits, and there’s Morse Code on the back cover. How cool is that?
I have seen Stewart compared to various other writers, including Roald Dahl and some named Blue Balliett (who is this? should I look into him? anybody?) but the one who jumped directly to my mind was Lemony Snicket. Not just because of the tone, even though both write in a way that’s kind of dark and uppity at the same time, but because of the way they treat children, both their characters and their readers: with respect.
Writing for children is incredibly difficult. You have to use simple language for sometimes complex ideas, but you can’t talk down to them. Children hate being talked down to and they’re very good at spotting it. Stewart tackles this head-on, having multiple characters (adult and child) observe how nobody ever listens to children, how children and their ideas are disregarded by adult society. And while children are, you know, children, they can also be quite sharp and can tell when they’re being lectured and treated shoddily. A writer who can tell an entertaining story while treating child characters and child readers as children but not in a condescending way–this is a rare and invaluable writer. This is the most powerful thing that I took away from this book, Stewart’s amazing respect for his subject and audience.
There is one other thing that I think Stewart handles particularly well: family. One of the common tropes of children’s literature is the orphaned main character, whether the character is actually orphaned (Harry Potter) or if the family is just absent (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy from Narnia). There are a couple of reasons for this, the main one being that it is easier to go off adventuring if you don’t have parents looking after you–parents worry a remarkable amount and most of the parents I know would not let their children go off on a life-or-death adventure, no matter how much danger humanity is in. Being an orphan also adds a certain facet to a character, a pain and an emptiness and a loneliness that can be explored throughout a book.
Stewart touches on this loneliness quite often in Mysterious Benedict Society. All four of the children are in some ways orphaned, even if temporarily. Mr. Benedict, the man who has gathered the children together, states frankly that this isolation of theirs is a benefit for the situation in much the way I described above. This idea is built upon as the main characters deal with their lack of family throughout the book, longing for some stability. I like that Stewart faces this subject without hesitation, making family an important part of the story and (not to give anything away) the conclusion. There is always family out there, he seems to be saying, you just have to be brave enough to find it.
One of the questions on Reynie Muldoon’s test is “Are you brave?” His answer: “I hope so.” This light-hearted and exquisitely crafted book shows that there are different types of bravery, each one important, a message wrapped up in cleverness and fun. The 450+ pages fly by but leave you thinking. Really an excellent book.
There’s a sequel out (The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey) but I’m not sure I want to read it even though I liked this one so much. Everything just ended so well. We’ll see.