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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Review: Book Girl, by Sarah Clarkson

Today I have a special find for my female bibliophile friends… and ladies, this book is especially for you. Yes, it will ultimately benefit the children in your life, but this one is a treasure for you. I am thrilled to share with you Book Girl by writer, speaker, and blogger Sarah Clarkson.

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This book is a celebration of the sisterhood enjoyed by women who love to read. Encouragingly written from a Christian perspective, it discusses the intelligent empathy that women develop when they are thoughtful lifelong readers, and the values they impart by sharing good books with one another. For by reading we not only encounter our own thoughts and feelings, but we engage with people, places, and ideas far beyond our own imagining. We are shaped by what we read; so we ought to read what is good and true and beautiful.

Inspired by her mother’s example and the recent birth of her own daughter, Clarkson’s enthusiasm for quality reading is contagious. She offers advice for “book girls” of all stages, including suggestions for how to make reading time a pleasant priority. As she acknowledges, some of us were born reading and haven’t stopped; many have been distracted by life and don’t read as much as we would like; others have never developed the habit but wonder what people love about all those printed pages. Wherever you fall – and whatever your age – this book is for you.

The author makes a compelling case for not only why women should read, but what we should read: books that form as a whole person and nourish us through the seasons of life. Above all, books that prepare us to become the heroine in our own story, embracing and giving all that is good to the world.

To that end, Clarkson has here shared with readers many of her favorite and most formative reading recommendations. Her collection is finer than gold. She painstakingly arranges fiction, biographies, spiritual classics and more into more than twenty book lists. With uplifting accounts of how each theme supports the overall balance of the reading life, she goes on to offer a short review of each title. The scope is breathtaking and includes everything from Wendell Berry to P.G. Wodehouse. Other favorites include C.S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, Madeleine L’Engle, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and dozens more for children and adults.

The book could easily be savored in its entirety or in useful tidbits, but it is not one to lay aside after one reading. It is made to be revisited frequently over many years, as a wholesome source of inspiration. (I am quite serious about “many years”; there is enough here to keep the most serious bluestocking busy for a long time.)

Most of my reviews are for children’s books, but this one is an investment in all of us. It is by being readers that we teach our children to become readers, and share with them the exquisite graces of the reading life. Book Girl is all of that and more, for it nudges us to fill our hearts and heads with the very best – and then to share it with the world.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children, also by Sarah Clarkson

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Review: Uncle Jed’s Barbershop

Sometimes a well-done children’s story is the best way to introduce complex and difficult issues, even reminding adults what is really at the heart of the matter. The loving tale of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, is one of these.

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The story is told by Sarah Jean – great-niece of sweet Uncle Jed – in a readable storytelling style. Growing up in the American South just before the Great Depression, her Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county – and by extension, the only barber who would cut a black man’s hair. He traveled to his patrons on horseback, accepting what payment his neighbors could offer. Little Sarah Jean loved his visits. Uncle Jed would tell her all about the beautiful barbershop he was saving up to open one day. Nobody ever thought he would, because times were hard and a black man was at a disadvantage to say the least. But Sarah Jean dreamed right along with him.

Then little Sarah Jean fell desperately sick, and doctors would only perform the necessary operation to save her if the family paid cash up front. Only one person in the family had that kind of money, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. Jed lost his life savings a second time when the Great Depression hit, but no matter what obstacles rose between him and his goals he kept on dreaming, and he taught a wide-eyed little girl to do the same.

Uncle Jed’s kind smile comes to life in both the text and the gorgeous paintings of this winsome book. The difficulties of segregation and racial injustice are not minimized or sugarcoated, but are treated gently and respectfully. Some details should be discussed with children upon reading it, such as the separate waiting rooms at the hospital and why the doctors treated white patients first. But the story is not dominated by these very real hardships; like Uncle Jed, it rises above them. The most remarkable feature of this book is the character of Uncle Jed; a man who faced oppression and injustice with hard work, dignity, kindness, hope, and a generous love of his family and community.

I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Uncle Jed ever opens that fancy barber shop, but I will tell you the ending warms the heart. The challenging themes of inequality represented in the book will be more easily explained to children age five and up, but the overwhelming message of goodness is perfect for all ages.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

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