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: In

If you have a little one in the house this summer you know that boredom might be the only limit to a young imagination. Author Nikki McClure shows us a boy who has no time for that in her engaging book, In.

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In is a simple story with a great deal to offer. It is short enough to capture toddlers and preschoolers, and boldly illustrated with McClure’s cheerful paper cuts in black, white, and bright yellows. Both text and pictures look spare at first but are thoughtfully detailed. It begins with a boy who simply wants to stay in: playing indoors, still “in” his pajamas. He goes on a mental adventure “in” a laundry basket and enjoys a leisurely breakfast, exploring the different meanings of “in” and keeping very busy with a variety of cozy “in” activities; until… could he be a bit bored? He goes out INto the rain, INto a puddle, and now he is decidedly “out”. He has a rambunctious play OUTside – looking “out” and staying “out” and running “out” of jam – until it is time to come back… “in”.

This book is such fun because it captures that moment when a child’s mind is changed and that dearest wish of the heart becomes something else. With a quick storyline and mild repetition it ponders the various implications of two common opposites: “out” and “in”. Children hear these words a lot, but what do they mean? And what good associations can they make with both of these basic words? What does it feel like to read a story “in” someone’s lap, or where can you go “in” your basket? What does it taste like to put milk “in” your tea?

“Out” is equally a word that can mean freedom and adventure, or enjoying something to its fullest, or gazing “out” from the safety of a hidden place. This little boy tries it all. He embraces a world full of adventure, but doesn’t neglect to soak up the comforts of a loving home. He studies and admires nature but always has someplace snug to go. (His outdoor play culminates in a tribute to the author’s fondness for owls, which is somewhat random but interesting all the same.)

In is a celebration of imagination and play, encouraging children to appreciate all that is familiar and to explore something new. It might inspire junior citizens (who could be getting weary of the long summer days?) to read a book, or to build a rocket ship, or to help make breakfast. Or maybe even to come over for a good cuddle. In or out, there is so much to do.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Journey Trilogy by Aaron Becker

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