Both Mr. Benedict and his Society are mysteriously and creatively wonderful

Title: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Middle School, grades 5 – 9

Summary and Review: Any book can get me with good characters, and this one has that in abundance.  Good guys, bad guys, kids, adults–they are all wonderful, quirky, and believable.  The Mysterious Benedict Society consists of four main characters, all children who had passed a test for “gifted children looking for special opportunities.”  What is great about this book becomes immediately apparent in that they each pass the test in a different way–one by understanding its actual design as a puzzle to be solved, one by actually knowing the ridiculously obscure answers, one through sheer obstination, and one doesn’t pass.  But after the fact, she engineers a clever escape route for the test administrator who is being bombarded by angry parents of others who didn’t pass, and passes on account of her sharp MacGyver-like skills (and a bucket of tools she never leaves behind).  Once the children are through the written (and of course second, practical, portion of the exam), they meet the mysterious Mr. Benedict and the people who work for him.  They are given their special assignment: to infiltrate a secret school where kidnapped children are brainwashed to do the dirty work of a man who turns out to be the twin brother of Mr. B himself!

Communicating with their mentors via Morse Code, the four students learn the ways of their new school and eventually understand its sinister mission–brainwashing and controlling the public through hidden messages in television shows which he sends by having children–the students at his so-called school–recite into a machine called the “Whisperer”.  The students successfully complete their mission, with the help of some of their adult accomplices, although Mr. Curtain, the enemy, escapes…leaving room for a sequel which I am very excited to read!

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

One of the obvious commentaries in the book is the effect watching too much TV can have on you–of course, it might not actually brainwash you, but then again, there are those who would disagree.  I mean, watch a few commercials and then tell me what you think.  But honestly, that I believe would prove to be a frightfully unsuccessful conversation with a child, and I think the message already comes through loud and clear.  It might be prudent to mention, and at least get the kids thinking about the messages that media can send, hidden or otherwise.  Some students might have fun the next time they watch a TV show to dissect the commercials and find the hidden and not-so-hidden messages in the commercials.  Doing this as an activity rather than a conversation is likely to be more successful, and teaching media awareness is hugely important in today’s world.

However, despite my general feelings toward the television and my happiness that this book seems to agree with me, my favorite message in the book comes from the characters themselves.  Each kid is very different–Reynie is very smart, a thinker, and sees the world as a series of problems he can solve.  Sticky Washington has an unbelieveable memory and knows every fact about everything he’s every read or seen.  Kate the Great (as she would like to be called) is a James Bond/MacGyver type who likes to solve problems by jumping out of windows and scaling walls with the rope she always carries.  And Constance is just a contrarian.  Her best quality is her stubbornness, and the reason this is an important quality isn’t revealed until the end of the story, when a similarly surprising fact about the small member of the team is also revealed.  Talking to your child about how each of them is able to contribute their strengths to solve a mystery as a team could be a vital lesson, especially if your child is one of many who struggles with the hated “group project” in school.  Is your son a natural leader, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of skills in others?  Can talking about these characters help him realize that his classmates might also have talents that are different from his?  Or is your daughter too shy to participate, not knowing what she has to give?  Can realizing that everyone has different strengths help her to realize that she also has a talent to contribute?  Conversations like these can also help children understand kids in their class who are “different” than themselves, in whatever way they may be.

And if all those reasons aren’t enough to like a book, then I don’t know what is.

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