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.

IMG_6445.JPG

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

IMG_6444.JPG

If you are enjoying these reviews please scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to updates via email.

Advertisements

Review: Ox-Cart Man

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”

With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.

IMG_6378.JPG

The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.

With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).

Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.

This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.

From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)

IMG_6379.JPG

If you enjoy these reviews, please sign up to receive new posts via email.

Review: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A character in a story often doesn’t realize what treasure he possesses until he has lost it. The same can be true of a society; but thankfully our treasure has been recovered in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

IMG_6279.JPG

A number of newly-pertinent words were added to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children; words like blog and voicemail. But a few people noticed that words were also left out, making way for the jargon of the technical age. These discards were words of the natural world, suddenly deemed so unfamiliar and irrelevant to the lives of children that they no longer warranted a place in a common school dictionary. Mourning their loss, Robert Macfarlane set out with illustrator Jackie Morris to bring these words back.

But surely, you protest, language changes. Antiquated terminology should be dropped in favor of current usage. What were these old words, so unceremoniously banished from the childhood lexicon?

Well, I’ll tell you.

Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Ivy. Otter. Raven. Weasel. Willow.

There are twenty in all.

You see how grave this is from many points of view. These are simple words, naming common outdoor discoveries; they should be as familiar to any youngster as the milk she pours on her cereal. How can she not know the joy of blowing away her wishes with the dandelion seeds? How can that squished bouquet of cheerful yellow flowers not have a name? And how much fun is missed if she cannot chuckle over Piglet’s “haycorns”Aesop’s Fables and The Wind In The Willows lose vital members of their cast, and Poe’s majestic poem has no meaning for her. Such a child has been denied both experience of the natural world and references to it; how then can she love it?

But all is not yet lost. Macfarlane and Morris return these words to us in grand style. Written a decade after the telling omissions, their gorgeous book devotes three spectacular full-page spreads to the reintroduction of each word. The first two pages allocated to every lost word depict its letters, scattered like puzzle pieces with other letters among various flora and fauna. The second pair of pages presents the word, bringing it to life by describing the organism itself. An acrostic poem exuberantly depicts the plant or animal named, and opposite this is a portrait of it in detail enough to please any naturalist. On the final spread we then find a splendid illustration of the subject – now no longer lost, but lovably familiar – in its own habitat. We recognize it, and recall with satisfaction that indeed we have loved it.

The Lost Words is a lush book, and it doesn’t even need to argue that these words – these birds and beasts and growing things – are important. Rather, it shows us. It captures the gleam in a kingfisher’s eye, the temper of the irascible magpie, the twitter of a flock of starlings. It preserves the blazing beauty of the heather, and the possibilities of a lowly conker. It demonstrates the value of these lost words by reminding us that they are more than words: they are living things that have a rightful place in our language and our world.

This striking volume is large, like a coffee-table book; perfect for studying in detail. It cannot fail to ignite a fresh appreciation for our fellow creatures, and a desire to encounter them in both field and literature. The poetry is delicious and the paintings truly impressive. Readers of any age can savor it, but above all it should be shared with our children; that these words – and the wild things they represent – need not be lost from our collective memory.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

IMG_6280.JPG