The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
I wish I had a better way to track the recommendations that I get, because then I could give credit for directing me to good books. The Mysterious Benedict Society might be my favorite children’s book I’ve read this year, but I haven’t read many. (My excuse for not reading this one as a child is that it came out when I was 23.) It brings together the boarding school tradition with a somewhat fantastic/sci-fi problem, a dash of political rhetoric and madcap characters.
The beginning of the book is really ingenius, characterizing the children and proposing a new definition of intelligence through putting them through a series of strange tests. The members of the Mysterious Benedict Society are Reynie, a natural leader and problem-solver, Sticky, who has an encyclopedic and photographic memory, Kate, always-prepared action girl, and Constance, a whiny brat. Their mission is to infiltrate “the Institute,” an island-based “school” run by the villain Mr. Curtain, whose ultimate goal is world domination through mind control. The school’s “lessons” sound like a combination of 1984 and Fox News (they’re being indoctrinated by evil ideas). The mystery is how to foil Mr. Curtain’s diabolical plot, even though they’re just kids. Toward this end, the book is constructed like a puzzle, with pieces from the beginning coming back to fit in place later. As in many children’s books, the protagonists are orphans. And by the ending, they find a home and family.
The writing style is cute, a bit hyperbolic, and riddling. The whimsical tone is sometimes paternalistic toward the characters, exaggerating their personalities. For example, several idioms are taken literally for laughs, and that reminds me of my dad’s sense of humor. It is a children’s book, though, and this style seems appropriate for storytelling. It’s a book that would be fun to read aloud; I enjoyed my audiobook very much. It would be a great book to begin conversations with children about teamwork, independence, bravery, multiple intelligences, and even the socially constructed nature of what it means to be smart.
Even better: it’s a trilogy!