July 6, 2012

The Mysterious Benedict Society

MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little Brown, 2007)
GENRE: Mystery
HONORS: New York Times Notable Children’s Book; Booklist Editors’ Choice

REVIEW: The Mysterious Benedict Society is the longish story of four extraordinary misfits who take on evil and challenge themselves in the process. It's a charming book in some ways, and Trenton Lee Stewart certainly knows how to work the conventions (misfit finds other misfits to fit in with, children solving problems no adult can, orphans finding some form of family etc) . That said, I was disappointed. Even though The Mysterious Benedict Society does pretty much everything right, the results are pretty lackluster.

OPINION: While the novel is technically good, it lacks soul, or more specifically, it lacks an understanding of a child's soul. All of Stewart's extraordinary kids - from Reynie Muldoon, the moral compass and natural leader, to George "Sticky" Washington, the genius beset by nervous ticks - feel like an adult's "Very Clever" conception of very clever kids. There's a fug of grown-upness over the whole thing that reads as subtly disingenuous. The other problem is that there’s a huge build-up to what should be a huge show-down, but the final resolution happens off-screen, and it's not even the kids who achieve it. Then, because of serious authorial strong-arming, everyone ends up happy. There's too much machination, and too little imagination. Ultimately, the story fails to meet its own potential.

IDEAS: Despite my reservations, The Mysterious Benedict Society and its sequels have become best sellers, proving their popularity with young readers. With the amount of puzzle solving and problem-tackling embedded in the story, it’s a good way to introduce the power of logic and independent thought to younger tweens.

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