ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?
In the first few pages of The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, this is the newspaper advertisement that Reynie Muldoon, an eleven-year-old living in Stonetown Orphanage, decides to answer. When Reynie arrives at the testing site with his pencil in hand, he must pass a series of increasingly odd exams, solve puzzles, and answer some questions that seem to have no relation to his “giftedness”: for instance, he’s asked whether he likes to watch television, whether he enjoys listening to the radio, and whether or not he is brave. (“I hope so,” he answers, after some thought.)
At the end of the day, only four children out of dozens have passed the tests. (Shades of Willy Wonka, here.) There is Sticky Washington, a thin and nervous boy with glasses; Kate Wetherall, an exuberant girl who carries a bucket full of handy tools and accouterments; Constance Contraire, an extremely petite child whose main characteristic is her stubbornness; and of course Reynie himself. These four, who are gifted in very different ways but all of whom are alone in the world — orphans or runaways — are now to be inducted into the secrets of Mr. Benedict.
Mr. Benedict, a kindly man with two unusual helpers (one of whom has red hair, dresses in yellow, and calls herself Number Two), has a dangerous mission for the children. They are to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened on Nomansan Island, become the Institute’s top students (“Messengers” and “Executives”) and discover the plans of the evil headmaster, Ledroptha Curtain, for world domination. These plans involve subliminal messages being sent in children’s voices over television and radio, and these cryptic messages have already caused a state of emergency in world affairs, with worse to come. Mr. Benedict knows that Reynie and his friends will be in danger, but he fears the whole world will be in danger should they fail.
I really enjoyed this book. Books about gifted kids are always appealing to me (I think Hermione is underappreciated in the Harry Potter books), and this is a nice example of the genre. With all the orphans and the dry humor, there are some echoes of the Lemony Snicket books here, but this novel works well on its own terms, and doesn’t have the murkiness the Snicket books fell into toward the end of the series. The characters are well-drawn, distinct without being caricatures, and realistic children with realistic reactions to events (they get cranky when they’re hungry or tired, for instance.)
One thing I especially liked about this book was the tests the children had to pass at the beginning. Watching them solve the puzzles (written tests, character tests, practical problems, a maze, etc.) in different ways according to their different gifts was terrific fun. In fact, I wished there had been more of this and a little less of the rest of the book. Also — and this is just a personal quirk — I notice so often in TV shows and movies and books that the standard configuration is to have a white male be the leader, and the sidekicks be a male of color and a white female. I’d love to see some other configuration one of these days, like an Asian female leader with a couple of less-predictable sidekicks, like a fat kid. But just because it was a little clichéd doesn’t mean it didn’t work. Reynie and Sticky and Kate and Constance (especially Constance!) were wonderful characters, and the ending to the book was completely satisfying even though there is a sequel out. Most enjoyable and definitely recommended.
p.s. There is a puzzle on the last page, challenging the reader to figure out Mr. Benedict’s first name. I am proud to say I figured it out! I must be a gifted child, ha ha.