Smarter Than Your Average Orphan
The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
As a teacher and an aspiring children’s writer, I read a fair bit of children’s literature, though, ‘literature’ is not the word I would use to describe some of the drivel that’s been published lately. For example, I recently read a Middle Grade fantasy that was completely ridiculous in its entirety. It was populated by cliche characters and preposterous situations, and had absolutely no grounding in reality. It was one massive contrivance that made me angrier with every page turn.
But, I’m not interested in wasting a reader’s time with long descriptions of what not to read. Rather, I would like to share books that I enjoyed, so that I can promote good writing over the pulp fiction din that currently clangs from the presses of a desperate-to-sell publishing industry.
The first book I’d like to write about is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It is Middle Grade, which means it’s aimed at children in and around grades 3 to 6. There are several books in the series, including a prequel, and they seem to be doing well.
To impress upon you how much I enjoyed it, I read most of it over two days.
I will not give you a plot synopsis or spoilers, except to say that a handful of exceptionally gifted orphans are recruited to save the world.
I will tell you that the author knows his audience, as he gives exactly what they are looking for in an adventure. His characters are very relatable, despite being so unusual.
Some of the situations are over the top, but not beyond the stretch of a healthy imagination. And, though some of it is predictable to one with thousands of plot lines pinging in his head, much of it is fresh and inventive, and even surprising.
What I appreciated most, however, is that these children are not operating alone. These kids, who are all geniuses in their own right, in the middle of a perilous mission, still require adult support and guidance to get the job done without dying.
This author acknowledges that these kids are being put at risk, and he doesn’t belittle or diminish the danger at all. Also, he doesn’t just have the children dumbly stumble into the danger and decide to pursue the adventure because of some unwarranted, arrogant belief that they are superior to any adult, or, worse, out of boredom. Nor does he have them appeal to all the grownups, only to be ignored or abandoned (Shades of Jacob Two Two). They are recruited by adults, to do something adults can not do, and their abilities and strengths are all the more valued because of this.
One day I’ll write a post about just how ridiculous I think it is to exorcise positive adult influences from children’s books for the sake of empowering children. But for now, let me say that The Mysterious Benedict Society is a well written novel. It has a good, literally fantastic plot. It is written in elevated language, it includes some puzzles, and it demands some thinking from the reader. It has great characterizations (though a bit Dahlesque). And it has a couple of nice surprises at the end.
If I like it…