The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis
Little, Brown & Co; March 2007; 485 pp; $16.99 HC
Core Audience: Boys and girls, ages 8-12; lovers of classic storytelling in the gothic tradition of Joan Aiken
Strengths: Great, adventurous writing full of fun mystery and intrigue
This is one of those rare books that have all of the classic elements that make a timelessly great story. Like the first time I read a story by Joan Aiken, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, or Roald Dahl, it felt like this book was written just for me, in the most delicious and savory way. This is the first book from newcomer Trenton Lee Stewart, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
When 11 year-old Reynie Muldoon’s attention is captured one morning by an ad in the paper asking “Are You a Gifted Child looking for Special Opportunities?” he is intrigued. Who would write an ad like this to children, rather than their parents, he thinks. There’s no doubt that Reynie is smart enough, and he is definitely in the market for a Special Opportunity. So off he goes to answer the ad, precisely following all directions.
Although dozens of children show up to answer the ad and take a mind-boggling series of tests, only Reynie and three others—a boy an two girls—are left at the end. They have been brought together by the Mysterious Benedict Society, and they have a job to do. They are a team of pint-sized geniuses who embark on an adventure so mysterious, so devilish, so fiendishly clever and risky that only a team of misfit kids like themselves could pull it off.
This story is packed with irresistible details: a mysterious school on an island run by a sinister man, extraordinary but flawed heroes, spyglasses, secret signals, codes, drippy underground tunnels, bullies that get their comeuppance, plenty of humor, orphans, long-lost parents, acrobatics, mistaken identity, a humorous case of narcolepsy, and so much more. Young readers will get a vicarious thrill as this team of incredibly skilled smarty-pantses overcome danger and strike a blow against an evil authority. The great black and white illustrations at the start of every chapter perfectly capture the quirky gothic flavor of the story.
I loved this book from start to finish, and it is definitely a favorite pick for 2007. The story ends in such a way that I am sure more adventures are coming for The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I can’t wait!