Monday, July 22, 2013

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
Middle Grade
Little, Brown Books and Company
512 pages (paperback)

"Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"
When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules.
As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all?
Welcome to the Mysterious Benedict Society.

First line:
In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test. 

Last line (highlight to read):
"Let them play. They are children, after all."
And this was certainly true, if only for the moment.

The Mysterious Benedict Society caught my interest the very first time I saw it at a bookstore. After reading the description, I was even more interested. And yet, for some reason, I didn't read it. It wasn't until years later that I picked up a used copy and discovered just how right my instinct had been.

I really can't think of a single book that seems likely to appeal to more children than this one. It's admittedly long for a middle grade novel and some children might find it challenging, but in terms of content, I simply can't imagine someone not liking this book.

What makes this book so great? Although all four of the children are extremely important characters, Reynie Muldoon is the protagonist, and he is just about the most likable character I can imagine. Highly perceptive, self-aware, intelligent, and compassionate, Reynie becomes a leader among his friends without meaning to. Despite this, he struggles with self-doubt and feelings of isolation. I simply can't help but root for him right from the start. Kate, Sticky, and Constance are also well-rounded, though perhaps not quite as well-rounded as Reynie.

The plot is exciting and fun, and expertly keeps readers on their toes. The conflict - a genius madman planning to take over the world using subliminal messages - seems straight out of a comic book. I suppose it could be classified as a sci-fi, but it doesn't read like one. Actually, the world has a similar feel to the world in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Mr. Curtain (the villain) seems at times horribly dangerous and threatening, and at times well-intending. The confusion between Mr. Curtain and Mr. Benedict (the children's kindly benefactor) and the occasional uncertainty over who to trust, make for a roller coaster ride of a story.

Throughout the excitement, friendship remains a central theme. This book doesn't make friendship look easy. Reynie, Sticky, Constance and Kate bicker. They sometimes annoy each other. They sometimes feel selfish or jealous or hurt. This is what makes the zany plot and setting work; a lot about the book might be otherworldly, but the relationships are straight from the heart. And, when their friendship is tested (highlight to read on), this realism makes their decision to stick together a powerful moment, rather than (or perhaps in addition too) a sappy one.

This would be a great read aloud for the classroom (or at bedtime).

The last word: A fast-paced, high-stakes story of danger, espionage, and friendship, The Mysterious Benedict Society is middle grade fiction at it's absolute best.

Grade: A+

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