I’m still between library trips, so I reread yet another one of my favorite books from childhood. It’s been a while since I read The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, which is a shame, because it’s a great book. A bookseller at a tiny little independent bookstore recommended it to me when I was around ten or eleven years old, and she did an amazing job, because The Mysterious Benedict Society is all but perfect.
What’s it about?
Reynie is an orphan and, despite his loving tutor, feels lonely and isolated. When he finds an advertisement in the newspaper offering special opportunities for gifted children, he decides to give it a shot. After a series of tests, Reynie meets the jovial Mr. Benedict, a kindhearted genius who needs a team of children to go undercover to the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a mysterious school with a nefarious purpose. There, Reynie and three other brilliant children (Kate, Sticky, and Constance) must find a way to defeat a brilliant but evil man who has developed a machine capable of brainwashing the world.
What’d I think?
Now that I’m older and have read more, I recognize patters across the books that I especially like. The first many times I read The Mysterious Benedict Society, I hadn’t really figured out exactly why I do or don’t like something. Now I do, and I can see very clearly why this book was and is one of my favorites.
Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance are a great team. They’re all great characters individually, but they really shine as a group. Early in the novel, the children complete a number of tasks, and their unique problem-solving skills are put on full display. Sticky is has a memory like a steel trap, but he’s anxious and lacks practical knowledge. Kate grew up in the circus and is incredibly athletic and hilariously resourceful. Reynie is incredibly clever; he excels at puzzles and riddles and is the natural leader of the group. Constance, too, is extraordinary in her own way, and her own way is very different and manifests itself largely in insulting rhymes. Despite their differences, none of the children ever expresses anything but love and respect for the others. There’s no inferiority or superiority between them; they’re in awe of each other’s abilities, but they admire those abilities rather than covet them. Instead of resenting each other’s shortcomings, they adjust to fill in any gaps. Even when they disagree or when Constance is at her most irritating, the children have each others’ backs, one hundred percent. Everyone should have a friend group like the Mysterious Benedict Society.
And the adults are great, too. At first glance, it seems like The Mysterious Benedict Society is a typical the-kids-are-all-orphans-and-there-aren’t-any-adults book. It’s true that the kids don’t have parents in the strictest sense, but it’s absolutely false that they don’t have families, and the adults are essential to the novel. The titular Mr. Benedict is brilliant, kind, and complicated. He’s a present character, always there to lend a hand or give advice when necessary, and the other adults are equally helpful and attentive. Most adults in kids’ books are evil, neglectful, or dead; that is so not the case here, but they don’t steal the limelight from the young protagonists. See? It can be done!
There’s also a refreshing lack of enforced gender roles. The Mysterious Benedict Society is totally free of sexism. Even the villainous Mr. Curtain makes no distinctions between the sexes, and absolutely nothing is made of the fact that Kate is the action hero of the series while the boys are quieter and more studious. There’s no romance or any implication that there might be. It legitimately does not matter that Kate is a girl or Sticky is a boy or whoever. You could gender swap every single character in this book and the difference it would make is entirely negligible. There are prominent black characters, and Sticky suffers from extreme anxiety, both of which make this book much less homogenous than many others intended for this age group.