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: The Kissing Hand

Excitement, trepidation, relief; the annual return to school is a time of mixed feelings for students and parents alike. When one of my children is feeling anxious about leaving home for a new experience, I like to revisit The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and illustrated by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak.

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Little Chester Raccoon is afraid of his first night at the forest school, and begs to stay home with his mother. He yearns for his freedom and familiar pastimes. Mrs. Raccoon lovingly reassures him, but when Chester remains doubtful she piques his interest with an old family secret: The Kissing Hand.

Showing him how it works, Mrs. Raccoon plants a kiss on the palm of Chester’s hand and wraps his fingers around the kiss to keep it safe. She tells him that whenever he needs a little love from home he can open his hand and press that kiss to his cheek, and know that his mother loves him. Chester is thrilled and confidently goes off to school; but not before returning the gift and offering his mother a Kissing Hand as well.

If this book comes close to being a little too sentimental, it can surely be forgiven for its gentle treatment of very natural emotions. Chester’s misgivings and his mother’s wisdom are universally recognizable, and the tender moment when she watches him scamper away to new things will echo in any mother’s memory. The final illustration of all the young animals at school is a triumph.

With vibrant, glowing illustrations and a speedy resolution, The Kissing Hand is a comforting choice for toddlers through the early grades. The tradition itself is easily introduced to the morning ritual if you so desire, while the theme of unconditional affection will also support children through other difficult separations; long-distance grandparents or a parent traveling for work or deployment, for example. Any family member can become a part of this cherished routine.

This short, simple story is just the right thing, not only for uncertain young scholars but for their parents as well. While parting can be hard and emotions tug the heart every which way, a story like this both affirms and calms those feelings into a sweet and meaningful family moment. If you’re feeling teary-eyed as the school bus rolls up, you might try a little Kissing Hand magic yourself.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

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