The Mysterious Benedict Society

It's a pretty popular and time-tested children's book plot device to suggest that only a child can bring about the destruction of an evil power because said evil power would never see it coming. It's so very popular that I feel this concept should make it onto the list of things to beware if you become an evil superpower (along with monologues spoken just prior to your attempt to kill an archnemesis that might give away your evil plan and incompetent underlings). The Mysterious Benedict Society follows in the tradition of books where kids save the world, tossing in some healthy doses of "orphans banding together," "improbable boarding school arrangements," and "eccentric adult leaders."

Our main character is Reynie Muldoon, an orphaned child of impressive intelligence who answers an unusual ad in the newspaper after being encouraged to do so by his tutor, Miss Perumal. "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" the ad asks -- and Reynie notes with some surprise that the question is directed to children and not parents. After undergoing some very surprising tests that aren't simply looking for general knowledge, Reynie finds that he has passed and is offered a place working with Mr. Benedict, a narcoleptic genius who has uncovered a villain's evil plot to control the world through the television and radio. Reynie is one of four children (all of whom are orphaned or otherwise alone in the world) that Mr. Benedict has recruited to join a secret society of child spies who will help him save the world. These four children each have their own unique talents and to accomplish their goals, they'll have to work together. Sticky Washington, a nervous boy who fidgets with his glasses, has a photographic memory. Kate Wetherall, who would like to be known as the Great Kate Weather Machine, has recently been part of a circus and is like a pint-sized MacGyver, carrying a bucket of useful items and tools. Constance Contraire... well, she's small, stubborn, and pretty annoying, but don't worry, she has her talents, too.

Together, the kids (who dub themselves the Mysterious Benedict Society) infiltrate an elite island school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (one of the kids jokes that at least the initials don't spell out DIE). Apparently, the man who runs the school, Mr. Curtain, is somehow broadcasting subliminal messages to the people of the world, sowing the seeds of panic and discontent that make up "the Emergency" which is a generally perceived notion that things are going downhill. Upon arriving at the school, however, the kids are totally on their own and find that the man who runs the school, Mr. Curtain, looks exactly like their beloved leader, Mr. Benedict! Together, they need to figure out what this means, how the subliminal messages are being broadcast, what purpose the messages have, and how they can stop it all to save the world... which seems like rather daunting tasks for four kids all on their own, but these are no ordinary children.

Trenton Lee Stewart has created a charming story with fun characters. There were a few times where I felt things dragged on a bit or certain characters would be a bit annoying, but on the whole I thought this was really a wonderful children's/YA book with some very positive messages contained within. Fans of Roald Dahl will find a kindred spirit in Stewart, who isn't perhaps as wicked, but is still quite witty. For kids who enjoy solving clues and figuring out a puzzle right alongside the protagonists, this would be an excellent read. The book also deals with some pretty serious issues including parental abandonment, the true nature of family, dealing with one's fears, forgiveness, and loyalty to the people one holds dear. Ultimately, Stewart has written an excellent novel and given the creativity in this one, I doubt that he'll have much trouble sustaining a series.

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