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: Ladybug Girl

Summertime is full of adventure, but sometimes it all gets to be a bit much for little folks. If you know someone under the age of five who is more comfortable with a literary excursion than a physical one, introduce them to the Ladybug Girl  series by David Soman and Jacky Davis.

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The title character is a spunky preschooler named Lulu who loves ladybugs (what preschool girl doesn’t?). Dressed in her signature Ladybug Girl outfit, she discovers that she has amazing superpowers of kindness, determination,  helpfulness, and optimism. When she meets a new friend or encounters a new situation she sometimes feels uneasy or afraid, even frustrated. But when she remembers her true identity as Ladybug Girl, she overcomes her insecurities and reaches out to find a solution.

With the family Bassett hound by her side as a trusty companion, Lulu faces a believable scenario and learns a valuable skill in each book. Her family is stable and supportive (admittedly suburban middle-class, which might not resonate with every child) and her parents lovingly allow her to face her challenges with a refreshing degree of autonomy within a safe environment. Lulu is thoroughly endearing, her thoughts and feelings are fun to read aloud, and her development is upbeat and heartwarming.

My own small daughters were gifted the original Ladybug Girl book when it first came out, at a time when a lot of major changes left them feeling shy and uncertain. We read that volume until it fell apart, and eagerly collected each new book as it came out: Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy, Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad, Ladybug Girl at the BeachLadybug Girl and Bingo and more. I loved the reality of the story plots, the emphasis on imagination and creative play with friends, and the healthy confidence they encouraged. Not overconfidence or rudeness, just positive assertion. My son has devoured these along with his sisters, and now my second pair of girls is running around with wings and antennae. At a stage when getting out and about in the world is so much fun – but kind of scary too – Ladybug Girl is a superhero we can all get behind.

If you liked these books you might also enjoy: Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban

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