Many children daydream about being plucked from their everyday lives and sent on adventures that take them to new places. They want to believe they possess some rare skill or quality that will make them stand out. These dreams of having special intelligence or even a super power, allow young people’s imaginations to take flight.
So it’s no wonder that children are attracted to books that honour and explore the desire to stand out from the crowd. J.K. Rowling did it wonderfully with the Harry Potter series, taking the lonely and orphaned Harry from his closet-sized bedroom and sending him to Hogwarts where he discovers that he is an infamous wizard.
A new series taps into this same whimsy of secret identities and clever capers that children love so dearly. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Hachette Books, $8.99 – Ages 8-12) by Trenton Lee Stewart definitely lives up to this long and rich tradition.
In the novel, readers meet Reynie Muldoon, an orphan who stumbles upon an odd newspaper ad that is seeking to recruit gifted children. Reynie replies to the ad and finds himself having to go through a battery of tests that very few of the other children around him can complete. In fact, only three others pass the test. Reynie, along with Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall and Constance Contraire soon find themselves in the presence of the quirky yet brilliant Mr. Benedict, a narcoleptic, who when not falling to the ground in sleep, is trying to save the world from his nemesis Mr. Curtain. He explains that the children must go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, to sabotage Mr. Curtain’s evil plan to use young people to transmit evil messages around the world.
The book is full of wonderful plot twists and action sequences that will keep readers turning the pages as quickly as possible. At the heart of the book, however, is an important message about truth and honesty. The children selected to be part of the Benedict Society were not chosen because they had superior intelligence or possessed super-powers, but because they each refused to cheat or showed genuine kindness by helping a fellow student taking a test. In fact, the book’s author emphasizes this point even further by making all the children skilled in different ways, each contributing to the tasks given to them by staying true to their own set of talents and abilities. He embraces the fact that all minds work differently and each has its own way of finding answers.
The book does a wonderful job of living up to the longstanding tradition in children’s literature of orphans and outcasts who discover their true destiny. This type of wild wondering that children love to delve into is an important step in beginning to shape their dreams and hopes for the future. And after they read the Mysterious Benedict Society, they will realize that everyone has talents and what you do with them is what matters the most — a realization that will open up all sorts of new worlds to them.
The Mysterious Benedict Society also has two sequels, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (Hachette Books, $8.99) and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Hachette Books, $19.99)