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Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser

A review of the children's book The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, in which a group of children must infiltrate and thwart an evil boarding school.

Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser

BOOK REPORT for The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society Book 1) by Trenton Lee Stewart

Cover Story: Showoff
BFF Charm: Yes! And Bonus Adoption Certs!
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: It's Roald, Dahl-ing
Bonus Factors: The Goonies, Illustrations, Puzzles, Evil Boarding School
Relationship Status: After 25 Years, Why Talk About Love Right Now?

Cover Story: Showoff

Hello, gorgeous! I LOVE illustrations, and if I ruled the world, all books, magazines, adverts, posters -- hell, all THINGS would have hand-drawn illustrations and typefaces. The cover has a great Edward Gorey feel to it, which is both perfect for the book and totally flaunt-worthy.

The Deal:

One morning, Reynie Muldoon is perusing the newspaper over a cup of tea with his tutor Miss Perumal, discussing the world's events in Tamil (like ya do), when they notice an advertisement for exceptional children. Upon answering the ad, Reynie and scores of other children take a battery of curious tests. When he passes all the tests, he and four children are chosen by the reclusive genius Mr. Benedict for a secret mission that involves going undercover at an evil boarding school and saving the world.

BFF Charm: Yes!

Reynie is the delightful reluctant leader kid -- he's curious and clever and has a knack for puzzles. The other kids at the orphanage make fun of him for liking to read, and all he wants is to belong somewhere. I'd have been friends with him at 12 or 32, and I have a ton of books I'm sure he'll love to read. He and Kate are the most outgoing and confident -- Kate ran away from her foster home to join the circus, and while I like her, she's definitely not my favorite. She's a little too ... energetic for me to keep up with. My favorite favorites are Sticky Washington: 1. because his nickname is awesome and 2. because he's so lost and eager and shy, it makes me want to give him a billion hugs; and Constance Contraire, who's the grouchiest, most awful crankypants EVER and composes spur-of-the-moment mean-spirited poetry that killed me. God, I love that kid.

And bonus adoption certs for all four, but most especially for Constance.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

The kids are preteens, and their affection-deprived childhoods have kept them unaware of romance and tingly feelings rather than catapulting them into premature sexual development. And thank GOD, because as much as I love Will and Lyra and the Dark Materials series, I was seriously disturbed by how weepy and swoony I got over a couple of 12-year-olds. There's not even a hint of possible romance, not even between any of the grownups in the book.

Talky Talk: It's Roald, Dahl-ing

Stewart creates a wonderful Dahlian world where most adults are idiots or evil, some adults are kind and good, and children are capable of more than any grownups ever notice. It's only natural that children would have some magical quality making them essential to saving the day. The lack of romance, the punny names, the nature of the nefarious bad guys all help the story exist squarely and completely in childhood; Stewart's sly, tongue-in-cheek writing adds to the atmosphere, as does his frank inclusion of themes adults find unsettling and often don't want children reading about -- questioning authority, death, human rights, the perils of unfettered capitalism. You know, the usual suspects, minus sexytimes.

The only practical approach to Nomansan Island was by the long, narrow bridge that ran from its bank to the mainland's wooded shore a half mile away. The city had not developed along this part of the shore, but had grown northward along the inland river, leaving a few acres of woods untouched. (One day, no doubt, the woods would be noticed -- like a nagging itch -- and quickly chopped down, but for now they remained.)

Bonus Factor: The Goonies

The Mysterious Benedict Society are a bunch of misfits -- orphans, a runaway, an abandoned child -- on a grand adventure where they'll receive more than just One Eyed Willie's treasure; they'll learn Important Life Lessons, wrapped in an unobnoxious package.

Bonus Factor: Illustrations

Each chapter's headed by a gorgeous illustration by Carson Ellis, who does the album artwork for the Decemberists (oh, that's why it looked so familiar!). The style suits the old-fashioned, no-grownups-allowed writing and story.

Bonus Factor: Puzzles

From the tests the kids take to figuring out how to defeat Mr. Curtain, puzzles abound. And it's great, because I love puzzles! I also suck at puzzles (I've had one of those wooden ones disassembled on my desk for 4 years), which is why I was entertained by puzzles intended for grade-school kids (YES, it did take me 2 days to figure out the puzzle on the last page. SO WHAT?). If you're a puzzle genius, you'll probably scoff at these, but don't rub it in in the comments, mmmkay?

Bonus Factor: Evil Boarding School

The kids' mission involves not just a boarding school, but an EVIL boarding school!

Casting Call:

The Big Lebowski as Mr. Curtain

Strong men do cry; strong men DO cry.

Asa Butterfield as Reynie

Mr. Curtain and Reynie are the only characters I could easily cast, and the boy in the striped pajamas is perfect. I absolutely REFUSE to cast someone white as Sticky, and I couldn't find anyone I felt could really handle his insecurity and gravitas, so I chose the 13-year-old Nevada winner of the 2010 National Geographic Bee (PS. YOU GUYS, there were only like THREE GIRLS OUT OF 50 on that list. WHAT.), young Asimwe here.

Asimwe as Sticky Washington

This kid should get an agent.

Relationship Status: After 25 Years, Why Talk About Love Right Now?

Like an agreeable arranged marriage, this book and I got along great. There weren't fireworks and passion, but we are compatible enough and can always count on each other for a laugh. It's dependable and good company, even if it does have a tendency to go on a bit long (486 pages!). I'll happily follow it on its next couple of adventures, at the very least for the sake of the children.

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.