Carnival of Children's Literature: Reading Railroad
Cybils Press Release

The Mysterious Benedict Society: Trenton Lee Stewart

Book: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
Illustrator: Carson Ellis (blog)
Pages: 485
Age Range: 9-12

I started reading Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society one afternoon, when I had to kill some time in the bookstore (I know, it was rough). And darned if I didn't have to buy the book in hardcover, because I had to know what happened next. The Mysterious Benedict Society begins when eleven-year-old orphan Reynie Muldoon responds to a newspaper ad that asks: "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" The ad leads Reynie to a series of examinations, to which he applies intelligence, ingenuity, and ethics.

Following the exams, Reynie finds himself part of an elite team of children. Children whose mission is nothing less than to save the world. With only a smattering of adult guidance, the children go undercover at a mysterious school, where they find horrors almost beyond comprehension. But they also learn to be resourceful, and to be loyal to one another. They become a sort of surrogate family, and learn that the unique strengths that they each bring to the problem are all necessary for its solution. Here's a quotation about that (thoughts from Reynie about another one of the children on the team):

"Sometimes Constance drives me crazy, but now I can't imagine being here without her. I can't say for sure, because I have no experience, but -- well, is this what family is like? The feeling that everyone's connected, that with one piece missing the whole thing's broken? (Of Families Lost and Found)

The Mysterious Benedict Society is an adventure novel with an old-fashioned feel (clear from the very picture of a mysterious house on the cover). There are Morse code messages, creepy laboratories, and secret tunnels. The school is even set on an island. But it's also a highly entertaining book, aimed squarely at the middle grade set, too, with humor at various levels (from irony to slapstick). Trenton Lee Stewart is very very funny. I flagged some dozen passages, and had a difficult time pruning it down to my favorite four.

Team member Kate, challenging the cliche "know it like the back of your hand":

"I've always thought that was a funny expression," Kate said. "Because how well do people know the backs of their hands? Honestly, can anyone here tell me exactly what the back of your hand looks like?" (The Sender and the Messages)

Kate again, poking fun at her team in witty fashion:

"Aren't we a depressing bunch?" said Kate. "If we continue like this, we'll have to start calling it remorse code." (Codes and Histories)

A leader at the school, informing the children about the somewhat irrational rules:

"You can wear whatever you want, just as long as you have on trousers, shoes, and a shirt. You can bathe as often as you like or not at all, provided you're clean every day in class. You can eat whatever and whenever you want, so long as it's during meal hours in the cafeteria. You're allowed to keep the lights on in your rooms as late as you wish until ten o'clock each night." (Traps and Nonsense)

Reynie, coping with unhelpful advice from another student administrator:

"Whatever you do, do not admit to Mr. Curtain that you cheated. If you did cheat, I mean. I'm not saying you should lie. That's even worse. Don't admit to cheating and don't lie."
"You're saying my best course of action right now is not to have cheated in the past."
"Exactly," S.Q. said.
"That's helpful." (Punishments and Promotions)

The four children are clearly drawn, and each arouses the reader's sympathy in a different way. The character of Constance, the smallest and crankiest of the children, is a delight, even as she's clearly annoying to the others. I also loved the brilliant but shy and insecure Sticky (he has a sticky memory). Kate is the epitome of bravery and resourcefulness. And Reynie is everyone's conscience, doing the right thing, and thinking clearly, until the end.

The Mysterious Benedict Society includes small illustrations at the start of each chapter. Carson Ellis's pen-and-ink drawings support, in tone, the old-fashioned feel of the book. But they also add to the book's humor, and capture the distinct personalities of the children.

I would have adored this book when I was 10 or 11. The Mysterious Benedict Society is a sure winner for middle grade readers, boy and girls, especially if they like puzzles, or reading about mystery and adventure. I think it could also be a fun read for their parents, too. Recommended for anyone, ages nine and up.

Publisher: Little, Brown (see also the book website)
Publication Date: March 2007
Source of Book: Bought it from Amazon
Other Blog Reviews: Deliciously Clean Reads, Wands and Worlds (Sheila gets to everything before me lately), A Patchwork of Books, Provo City Library, BlogCritics, Outside of a Cat, AmoxCalli, Chasing Ray, Forest Park Public Library
Author Interviews: Kidsreads

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.