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The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart
512 pages / 2008

Reynie Muldoon is an 11-year-old orphan who knows he is smart – he certainly reads more than any of the other boys at the orphanage – but he doesn’t quite understand just how smart. The orphanage administrators seem to have an inkling, assigning him his very own tutor. His tutor, Miss Perumal, is certainly aware, so when she notices an ad in the newspaper offering a scholarship for gifted children who pass a special exam, she signs Reynie up.

It might seem just a multiple choice exam, but there’s more being tested here than knowledge. I don’t want to give too much of the fun away, but I’ll share just one example. The children are told to take one pencil, and one pencil only; not any less or any more. Simple enough, except that as Reynie and several other children approach the exam building, the girl in front of him manages to drop her pencil down a sewer grating. The exam is just about to begin, and she has no pencil. Reynie stops to help but she tells him to just go – he doesn’t have an extra pencil, so what can he do anyway? That’s when Reynie takes out his pencil and breaks it in half. Problem solved. All it took was some creative thinking by a kind soul. The first half of the book is full of all sorts of puzzles like that, that involve not only clever thinking, but often thoughtfulness.

While dozens of children take the test, only Reynie, and three others pass. Like Reynie, they are all missing their parents, and they all have their own unique way of looking at the world, and their own gifts. George “Sticky” Washington can remember everything he reads, Kate Wetherall is quick thinking, athletic, and always positive, and Constance Contraire… well the children aren’t quite sure what Constance is, other than grumpy. After passing the tests, they meet Mr. Benedict, the man behind it all. He explains to them that the world is facing a mysterious danger, that the world is only aware of as “The Emergency.” No one quite seems sure what the emergency actually is, but it has everyone feeling discombobulated, and looking to their leaders for direction.

Mr. Benedict reveals that the Emergency is actually being caused by subliminal messages being sent over the radio and television airwaves. And the messages are coming from an elite children’s school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened or L.I.V.E. (and note also, what it spells backwards). Mr. Benedict wants them to go undercover as his operatives at the school to find out what’s really happening.

I loved the first half of the book best, with all its different puzzles to solve. But another highlight was the creepy L.I.V.E. Institute, and their rules. Kids might not catch it, but if parents are reading this out loud, it might be worth noting to your children that the double-speak here is of the sort we hear from our own political leadership, who will transform tolerance to mean its opposite, and love to mean embracing what shouldn’t be. Here are a few of the Institute rules:

  • There are no rules here!
  • You can wear whatever you like. However, trousers, shoes and shirts are required at all times.
  • You don’t have to bathe if you don’t want to. Simply be clean every day in class.
  • You may stay up as late at night as you wish. Lights are turned off at 10 PM and you must be in your room at that time.
  • You are free to go where you please. Please note, however, that you must keep to the paths and the yellow-tiled corridors.

Cautions

A common and troubling theme in children’s books is for the kids to be much smarter than their parents, such that they don’t feel a need to listen to the authorities in their lives. After all, their dumb parents just don’t get them.  That the protagonists here are four pre-teen geniuses mean there is at least a little of that, but it’s balanced off by the fact that Mr. Benedict himself is a genius and several of the other adults – his assistants Milligan, Number Two, and Rhonda – are highly capable. But there are still occasions – particularly in the first sequel – where the kids ignore an adult’s order because they know better. And because they are geniuses, they often do actually know better! The author balances that out by the number of times the adults are involved in rescuing them – sometimes adults know best too.

There are 5 books in the series, with each clocking in at 400+ pages, so with the amount of time a child might put into it, it is worth noting the complete lack of spirituality in the series. This is 2,000+ pages of God being almost entirely ignored. The only exception I can recall is in the prequel, Book 5, in which a mention is made of a chapel service.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a fairly gentle series – it could make for bedtime reading without much danger of giving anyone nightmares. I appreciated it for making television one of the tools of the bad guys, as it so often is in real life too. There is also an implicit warning against overreaching government control, with the bad guys trying to use the Emergency as an excuse for them to seize the political reins of power. This isn’t really a political book, but what politics is has, I rather like.

There are three sequels to The Mysterious Benedict Society, then a prequel for #5 telling the young life of their mentor Mr. Benedict, and finally, a companion puzzle book for #6 that invites us to become a puzzle-solver too, just like the Benedict Society. The series, in order, is:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007, 512 pages)
  2. The Perilous Journey (2008, 440 pages)
  3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2009, 400 pages)
  4. The Riddle of Ages (2019, 416 pages)
  5. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (2012, 480 pages)
  6. Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums (2011, 176 pages).

I’d recommend the first two and last two. The first of the bunch has an originality to it, and a very clever reveal at the end that’ll have you saying “Of course!” even as you had no inkling of it before that moment! The second doesn’t reach the same heights… but how could it? It is, however, very fun.

The second-best book in the series is actually the fifth, the prequel about the young Mr. Benedict, and his own adventures in an orphanage. I read about 15 minutes of this to our girls each night, for about 2 months straight, and they were always asking for more. While the puzzle book was interesting, I was glad we got it out of the library and didn’t buy it.

I wouldn’t bother with books 3 and 4. In these two, Constance has developed telepathy, and since mind-reading is beyond all of us (even as figuring out puzzles isn’t) this development makes these two books a good deal less relatable, and consequently less interesting. Telepathy also seems a cheat – how hard is it to outwit your enemies when you can read their minds? To top it off, Constance also learns how to manipulate minds with her telepathy, influencing them to think as she wants them to. This takes us into the realm of mind-control, not by machine as in the first book, but by supernatural powers, and for a decidedly unspiritual book, this is getting too weird for my liking. Thankfully each book is entirely self-contained, so it is easy to get just 4 out of the 6, without any sense of incompleteness.

Books 1 and 2, along with 5 and 6 total more than 1,500 pages of reading, which should keep even the most avid bookworm in your family chewing for a long time.

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Articles, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Rediscovering Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman famously wrote his first book, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!, when he was twelve years old. By the time I was twelve, he’d written a dozen or so more – which was fortunate for me, because I was eagerly reading and re-reading them all. Why did I love his novels? They were funny; they were quirky. There was also an essential good-naturedness to them that appealed to me. Although the characters got into plenty of trouble, at heart they were usually kids with integrity, showing loyalty, generosity, and kindness. As time went on, Korman continued to write prolifically and successfully. He still wrote some of the humorous novels for kids and teens that had made him famous, but he branched into other genres as well, writing, for example, several sports series and adventure trilogies. By now I had more or less outgrown his books . . . but I still had a soft spot for this favorite author, and occasionally checked out his new releases. I found many of them less memorable than his earlier “classics”; and some of them seemed edgier, with less likeable (though more realistic) characters. I was troubled by one teen novel called Pop (2000) – a book Korman was particularly proud of – because of the eventual suicide of the aging, dementia-stricken former football star, which is portrayed as a sympathetic, even noble act. Although I nostalgically looked forward to sharing my old favorite Korman novels with my own young kids, I wasn’t so sure about his newer ones. Then, within the last six or seven years, a few new Gordon Korman books caught my eye – books like Slacker (2016), Restart (2017), The Unteachables (2019), and more. Nephews and nieces were raving about them, and soon I was hooked too. They felt like a new era of Korman novels – like the novels I would’ve expected this talented author to grow up to write. Some of Korman’s recent books are more or less pure silliness, but clean and positive, with creative storylines, fun characters, and some laugh-out-loud lines. Others are surprisingly serious, dealing with topics like the realities of war and the Holocaust, as well as domestic abuse (some of these books are definitely not for younger readers). Single parents and broken families are presented matter-of-factly, though not glamorized; many of Korman’s characters are struggling with life changes such as their parents’ divorce. In general, the characters feel a bit “older” than some of the kids in our communities, as the seventh- and eighth-graders are often quite caught up in social media and sometimes in girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. Unfortunately Korman does occasionally (though rarely) use God’s name in vain. In both Restart and Linked, for example – award-winning and otherwise commendable books – there is a flippant use or two. To me, Restart marked the real beginning of Korman at his thoughtful best, as he deals with interesting questions about good and evil, human nature, character, and choices; and Linked addresses deep questions about the purpose of life, religion, and faith, as the main character searches for what’s real and meaningful. So I regret that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend these two. Here, though, are a few others I can. Slacker 2016 / 240 pages Cameron Boxer is all about video gaming. When his parents get concerned that he’s missing out on real life, he starts a fake school group, the Positive Action Group, to appease the adults in his life. Unexpectedly, the “PAG” takes off, dragging the unenthusiastic gamer along – and, of course, surprising him by showing how much more satisfying a purposeful, other-centered life can be. One of the strengths of this (very funny) book is how Korman gets into the heads of his characters, and especially of the underachieving adolescent Boxer, whose life choices (i.e., gaming above all) make perfect sense to him, and who is honestly miffed when real-life concerns “disturb his lifestyle.” By the end, thankfully, Boxer is able to reflect that PAG “started as a hoax, but . . . ended up the realest thing about me.” Operation Do-over 2022 / 320 pages Twelve-year-old Mason made one big mistake – he betrayed his lifelong best friend over a girl they both liked. Five years later, through a mysterious time warp, he finds himself back in time, to just before the fateful incident occurred – with a unique chance for a “do-over.” He takes the chance, with the benefit of hindsight and some extra maturity, to change several things in his life this time around: try out for a team, stand up to a bully, treat a classmate better, and even keep his beloved dog from a premature death. (Interestingly, he realizes he’s not able to prevent his parents’ divorce, though he tries.) As in Restart, Korman leaves his readers with some hopeful and encouraging ideas: our “fate” isn’t predetermined, and we can make choices that change our trajectory and lead to a more positive future. The Fort 2022 / 256 pages This novel, Korman’s milestone 100th book, is a serious (and a moving) one, and although the characters are eighth-graders, the topics are pretty weighty for middle-school readers. A group of friends discover a Cold-War-era bunker in the woods, and it becomes their secret hide-out. All of them are dealing with difficult issues – OCD, family breakdown, the challenge of fitting in, family members with drug addictions – and one of them, unknown to everyone else, has a violent stepfather at home. For him, the fort becomes his literal escape, and the novel largely revolves around his story. Korman writes the different chapters, powerfully, from the points of view of the different characters. Despite the serious subject matter, we see friends showing loyalty and self-sacrifice, and are again left with the idea that positive change is possible. Conclusion Although Korman has said he’s “not a message kind of guy,” he is interested in the power of stories to help readers explore ideas and see things from different perspectives. And even if he’s not pushing a particular agenda, books do inevitably communicate something of the worldview of a writer. In the case of Korman’s books, there are a lot of hopeful takeaways for young readers: people can change, and we can make choices to change our futures for the better. Understanding and empathy can triumph over bullying and racism. Our lives can and should be about something bigger than ourselves, and grappling with what that means is a worthwhile pursuit. Positive messages, and true . . . but so incomplete. Now my oldest son is nearly twelve. (And yes, he’s been enjoying many of my old favorite Gordon Korman books.) As he and his siblings and peers grow up and confront the big questions of life, I’m grateful that we have more complete answers, and real hope, to offer – far beyond anything they’ll find in a Korman novel. At the same time, books like Korman’s have their place – as thought-provoking reads, or sometimes just as well-written stories that bring joy and make us laugh. And I know that I, and my kids, are looking forward to seeing where Gordon Korman takes us in the books to come....