I was hooked by the opening sentences of the back cover explanation:
" 'Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?'
"When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them."
"This has potential," I thought, "a literary satire on No Child Left Behind, but cleverly disguised in a children's book." I bought it.
There were reviews on the inside of the front cover. I don't like reading the reviews ahead of time, as I sometimes let them influence my reading too much. I don't want to risk being disappointed if I personally dislike the book. However, when critics compared The Mysterious Benedict Society to Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and one of my childhood literary heroes, Roald Dahl, it peaked my interest.
I had it on my TBR pile for three months, and last week, decided I couldn't wait any longer.
About a hundred pages in, I could understand the Potter/Snicket/Dahl comparisons. It is very cleverly written, with a very whimsical premise. A man named Mr. Benedict places an ad in the newspaper, seeking children for "special opportunities." The children, and their parents, who seek these "special opportunities", arrive one morning to take a rather complicated test with some rather complicated directions and questions. Only one child, Reynie Muldoon, successfully passes the test--only to find out that he has more tests to take.
For the second round of tests, Reynie meets two more kids who have passed the first test: George "Sticky" Washington, a young man who has encyclopedic knowledge of nearly everything, and Kate Weatherall, a girl who spent years in a traveling circus. They all engage in the next round of tests, which are not of the pencil-and-paper, standardized variety. Rather, these kids have to think about how they need to get themselves out of certain situations, such as going from one end of a room to another without touching certain colored squares.
Reynie, Sticky, and Kate all pass each of the tests, and are joined by a girl named Constance Contraire, who, as her surname suggests, has no regard for authority. In fact, she either failed or refused to follow the rules for any of the tests. The kids are puzzled about the reasons why Constance is joining their group.
In fact, they're all puzzled by why they're together. It turns out that Mr. Benedict has a very specific plan for this quartet: He wants them to be secret agents.
As Mr. Benedict forms his plan, something called "The Emergency" is occurring in their small village of Stonetown. Everything is out of control: the government, school budgets, crime, pollution, and general morale amongst Stonetown's good citizens.
Mr. Benedict believes that a series of subliminal messages are causing the Emergency, and that these messages are being transmitted from a school called The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (LIVE). A man named Mr. Curtain is using the students at this school to transmit these subliminal messages that are causing all of the havoc, and Mr. Benedict is sending Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance to LIVE to figure out how to halt the messages.
The four children are enrolled at LIVE, and send daily reports to Mr. Benedict, who lives directly across from LIVE, via Morse code and Kate's flashlight. Mr. Benedict always responds with cryptic messages of his own, and the children work together to figure out exactly what he's trying to say. And you, the reader, can figure out the meaning behind the messages along with the characters.
There are all sorts of clues behind LIVE's existence, as well as the peculiar behavior of its students, and the reader can figure out, along with Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, how all of these clues fit together.
It's safe to say that this is a very cerebral read. In addition to the puzzles and riddles that the readers and characters have to solve, there are underlying commentaries on government, education, child-rearing, and the media. It's a very layered book--layered because it appeals to both adults and kids alike. Kids will love the book's fantasy, for, among other things, LIVE has many secret passages, tunnels, and is on an island rumored to be guarded by sharks. There are also quite a few action scenes that kids will appreciate.
In addition to the fantasy and the commentary, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a book about friendship, and how four diverse personalities can get along to fulfill a mission. Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance not only have an incredible loyalty to Mr. Benedict, but to each other--probably because they are all orphans. Each one of them is seeking a missing parental figure in their lives. Reynie, before his involvement with Mr. Benedict, lived at the Stonetown Orphanage and was bullied by the other orphans. Sticky ran away from his parents. Kate's mother died when she was a baby, and her father left her. The whereabouts of Constance's parents are unknown, although Mr. Benedict mentions that she once lived by herself in the public library.
There are many details to remember in The Mysterious Benedict Society, and at times it's hard to figure them all out. But Trenton Lee Stewart, a first-time author, does an incredible job of weaving all of them together. This is a book that you can easily get into, and before you realize it, you've read a hundred pages or more in a sitting. He has a unique way of getting the reader hooked into the story, and you get intrigued very easily. Almost every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, and you'll want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
I was really disappointed when the book came to an end, but I'm not fretting too much. There is a sequel, and a third book is being published in October. And you can bet that you'll see reviews of both of these books here on the blog, coming very soon.
By the way, here are some links that you may be interested in, if you want to know more about The Mysterious Benedict Society:
- The official website of the Mysterious Benedict Society
- An interview with author Trenton Lee Stewart
- An excellent review from the book blog Vulpes Libris