Series Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The longer nights of autumn provide a cozy opportunity to begin a page-turning book series, and I have eagerly devoured this one: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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Following orphan Reynard Muldoon, the series brings together four children of exceptional abilities who share one other feature: they are all alone. They all answer an advertisement that promises adventure to children with certain unique qualities; and upon passing a very peculiar examination they meet Mr. Benedict and learn of his efforts to uncover and resist an unknown evil. The children accept their mission, without knowing fully what will be expected of them, or whether they can even trust this strange benefactor. They soon discover that the threat to their world is indeed very real, and they will have to work together quickly to find a way to stop it.

As Reynie hesitatingly forms relationships with Kate, Constance, and Sticky, he realizes that each of them will have to face their fears and, to some extent, overcome their own independent instincts in order to face a common foe. They must rely not only on their skills, but on each other. Trust does not come easily to the foursome, but it grows alongside a mutual respect as they work to solve a mystery that bears enormous consequences for the world in which, previously, they had no real home.

What makes these stories so fascinating is that it does not take place in a magical world; the children’s abilities are not supernatural, but powers of critical thinking and longing for truth. The protagonists are a bit like juvenile Sherlocks, reasoning their way through a tangle of problems. The author builds on an impressive range of facts to help his subjects along, and in so doing creates a place where both knowledge and deduction are celebrated. The writing itself is intelligent, with a thrilling vocabulary and appreciation for the most minute detail.

These stories certainly make it cool to be the smart kid, but they don’t deny a young person’s corresponding emotional or personal development. Reynie is a deeply thoughtful child who is keenly considerate of what others might be thinking or feeling. When he faces the temptation to do what seems most expedient for his own security, his innate loyalty ultimately puts the welfare of others first. As the children learn to get along, they all learn that it takes patience, kindness, and some sacrifice to care for another person. The author traces these developments with a deft sensitivity that is not the least bit cloying.

The exceptional plot is full of risk, riddles, and suspense; and I dare not give it away. Suffice it to say that you will be guessing until the last page. The antagonist proves to be quite diabolical, and at times the play between the themes of abandonment and trust is truly nerve-wracking. Yet the discomfort is warranted as the reader subconsciously begins to address these questions of human longing and achievement in her own mind. The end is wholly satisfying as each of the children, having played their own unique part, finds a place of genuine belonging.

Also striking in this series is the way the young operatives are treated by the mysterious Mr. Benedict and his bizarre staff; the children are seen very much as fully formed individuals, and accorded the respect of equals. Such a partnership is unusual in books for this age group, which tend to develop tension between youth and adults.

The friendships established in the first book endure adventures that will interest children from the age of eight or nine on up through the teen years, but I would particularly commend the whole series to children of a mature and sensitive nature. They will find encouragement to press through their fears and realize their potential as vital members of society. The series would make an excellent gift for a child who struggles to find their place, or needs reassurance that they have one.

Happy reading, Families.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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Series Review: BabyLit Primers by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver

With older children off to school, parents and caregivers welcome time with littler ones still at home. It’s never too early for them to start learning, and adults can enjoy it too with the BabyLit Primer series by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.

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This smart series adapts literary classics into board book form. Great works like Jane EyreThe Odyssey, Les Miserables, and Moby Dick are not actually abridged to convey the story, but rather themes from them are used to introduce concepts (colors, feelings, opposites, and more). Each title is posed as an old-fashioned “primer” on a given subject, illustrated with references from the story.

Illuminating these classics are simple, colorful images: a mixture of vintage patterns and modern shapes that create a fun and updated look. The figures are stylized and surprisingly detailed, with contrasting colors to attract even the tiniest eyes. The art pairs sweetly with the ideas and is uniformly pleasing.

There are quite a few BabyLit titles now; as with any series, some are better than others. The strongest are the ones that provide quotes from the original work. It gives a very young child the opportunity to absorb a marvelous description or turn of phrase that relates to something they have an interest in, like animals or weather. Among these I find The Jungle Book, Wuthering Heights, Little Women, and The Secret Garden to be particularly good.

Not all of the books feature text from the original stories, but they do contain hints of it. For instance, Pride and Prejudice is styled as a counting book, with “2 rich gentlemen, 3 houses, 4 marriage proposals, 5 sisters” and so forth. These references may delight adult readers even more than the children; but it is still an effective counting book for the target age, and provides young children familiarity with of a piece of literature that has shaped human awareness for two hundred years.

This series is admittedly a bit of a vanity for parents. Babies will not catch the clever references, nor will they emerge with an understanding of the actual plots from these tales. But they will see their loved ones connecting with books large and small, and wanting to discuss it with them. Such material provides junior scholars with a platform for exploring and talking about these stories with their adults; rather than being daunted by big grown-up books, they can engage with them and look forward to them. And for parents – who may be struggling to reconcile their personal interests with their new role as primary custodian of a small soul – these delightful books are a breath of fresh air.

Hint: a BabyLit selection makes an adorable baby shower gift. There are a lot of them, so you can always add to the collection.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Folk Tale Classics Treasury by Paul Galdone

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Series Review: The Cobble Street Cousins

Guiding a budding reader into chapter books can be a confusing experience, so finding an appealing series is like striking gold. If this sounds familiar, you might try The Cobble Street Cousins series by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin.

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This series of six short chapter books follows three cousins who live with their lovable Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents tour with the ballet. Tess, Rosie, and Lily have very different talents and interests, but they get up to tremendous fun living together in the attic of Aunt Lucy’s old house. Each book features a creative activity that the girls take on together as they make friends and memories in their temporary home: a cookie-baking business, a community newspaper, and finally, preparations for a very special wedding. The individual stories stand alone but the series arc expands encouragingly on the girls’ relationships with neighbors young and old. It’s hard not to want to go along with the three when they take tea cakes and oranges to visit old Mrs. White.

If these books have a fault, it is perhaps that they are too idyllic. It’s difficult to imagine a community of adults dropping everything to attend a program put on by the new neighborhood kids, or the local nonagenarian taking them all in for sewing lessons. If the three friends struggle with missing their parents or adjusting to their situation, no mention of it is made. And apparently on Cobble Street there is always time for tea and cookies. Unrealistic? Probably. But wouldn’t it be pleasant if the world could be just a little more like that?

Children learn to read at different rates, and they only need the ready-for-chapters level for a short time. But chances are that, even as they strike out with more independence, they are still at an age that values reassurance. Some children who can read beyond their years are frightened by coming-of-age themes like playground bullying or the death of a parent. These issues are real and there is time enough (and plenty of good books) to deal with them. But if you know a child who is eager to read and still has that precious innocence, you may safely trust this series.

These books, so sweetly illustrated with Halperin’s lovely drawings, will resonate primarily with girls from ages six to nine. They are a welcome reprieve from the somewhat sassy heroines who tend to fill the genre, and will beautifully bridge that gap between easy-readers and the joy of children’s chapter books. Just don’t be surprised if your daughter asks to bake cookies for an elderly neighbor.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Mandie Collection by Lois Gladys Leppard

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