Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society is a fun adventure/spy novel for older children.  Stewart deftly draws on several tropes - questing orphans, long-lost family members, child prodigies - as well as the general sense of unease children often feel about the grown-up world, to create a pleasant diversion for, well, perhaps a little longer than it should as the book clocks in at a whopping 485 pages.  (But it's fairly big print and reads relatively quickly.)

Anyway, out of hundreds of children who answer an advertisement in the paper - "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" - four are selected to form a unique team for the brilliant Mr. Benedict's project to save the world from a nefarious take-over scheme.  Messages are being transmitted through television broadcasts that are causing trouble across the globe, politically, economically, socially, in what's called the Emergency, but is basically shorthand for absolutley everything that's wrong in the world today.

Let me introduce you to these four children: Our protagonist, Reynie, is an orphan all alone in the world except for his friendship with Miss Perumal, his tutor. Stinky is a runaway with a photographic memory and is a certifiable genius. Eminently resourceful, Kate always has just the right item in her ever-present bucket. Constance is a pain; she's stubborn and rude and can't keep up with the others because she's so small, but she has hidden talents that, of course, prove to be vital to the success of the mission.

On one side you have the forces of The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, or L.I.V.E., which stand for control and fear and deception.  And on the other, you have Mr. Benedict and his rag-tag handful of operatives who stand for truth, freedom, and cooperation.

I appreciate the recognition that there are many different gifts, all of which can be useful and needed as part of a team; that's a great lesson for kids - and anyone - to learn.  And the oft-repeated counsel that teamwork is vital for success in life: "You are a team now.  Whether you always agree is inconsequential, but you must take care of one another, must rely upon one another in all things."

Important in a story with so many children separated from their families is the reminder that not all families look the same: "You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn't depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family."

All in all, it's an enjoyable read, though as I mentioned before a bit on the long-ish side, and I'll probably pick up the sequel to see what this collection of kids does next.

The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
ISBN: 9780316057776
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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