The Mysterious Benedict Society
When I was a kid, I used to borrow books from my classmate’s vast YA library and devour them one by one. She had books I’ve never heard of before – fancy, foreign stuff my small town self wouldn’t have read in a lifetime. One such book has stayed in my heart all the way to the present, having been fascinated with it as a child and still loving it on my second read as an adult. The book in question is The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Written by Trenton Lee Stewart and illustrated by Carson Ellis, the book was published in 2007 and has been followed by several others in the same universe, which I am yet to read but guaranteed to get soon. The story is centered around four children, each incredibly bright in their own way, who embark on a dangerous undercover mission to save the world from being brainwashed by a crazy genius.
I know, I know, the story sounds very kooky and childish, but you have to remember it’s not really a book for adults. With that said, the writing is very down to earth and mature, and the plot is actually quite believable given our current climate. Using subliminal messages to brainwash the population doesn’t seem that far-fetched when you live in a world that spams you with ads, spies on you from all your devices, and makes you rely on the internet for a normal living. Perhaps in 2007 it seemed a bit silly, but reading the story now is actually quite eerie.
We begin our journey by being introduced to Reynie Muldoon, an orphaned kid whose intelligence is of such a level that the orphanage gets him his own personal tutor, Miss Perumal, who is also the only parent-figure he’s ever known. She urges him to respond to an ad in the paper about gifted kids being tested for something special and, propped by his desire to make a difference, Reynie decides to participate. It’s these tests, one stranger than the next, that introduces Reynie to Mister Benedict and to his mission, should he choose to accept it. Together with Sticky Washington, a runaway with an incredible memory, Kate Wetherall, a crafty ex-circus performer, and Constance Contraire, a tiny, professional complainer, Reynie must infiltrate L.I.V.E (Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened) and put a stop to the subliminal messages they’re sending out to the population.
Mister Benedict, an intelligent, narcoleptic man with a warm kindness for the kids, has realized that the messages are building up to something much more dangerous, and knows that the only way to stop it is from the inside. Given that the messages are always sent by children, he concluded that the only people who can succeed in this mission are children, which is why he’s chosen the gang. Backed up by Rhonda, an all-rounder who had also passed the tests in the past but who is now too old for the mission, The Pencil Woman, a clever woman who never sleeps, and Milligan, a sad man who’d had his memories stolen, the Mysterious Benedict Society heads to the island where the institute is situated. And thus begins the adventure.
What makes this book such a joy to read is how nicely the characters are portrayed. They’re all vastly different, with individual skills that make them shine, but they’re also tied by a common goal, their loyalty to each other, and their similar backstories. The Mysterious Benedict Society gang are all, in some form or another, orphans, children who’ve lost their family and had to become independent at an early age. Children whose experiences, interests, and familial situations shunned them from a normal childhood. It’s quite heartbreaking, but the book is careful about how it portrays the children’s loneliness and otherness, and makes sure that by the end, they not only have adults who love them in their lives, but also each other. It’s the found family trope to a T here, and it’s done beautifully.
Apart from helping each other during their stay at the institute (Kate using her MacGyver-esque skills to sneak around, for example), everyone also gets individual development. Mister Benedict is adamant that they’ll need all four of them if they are to succeed, which is something that the kids constantly remember as doubts start to take form. Reynie especially begins to think he’s not suited to be the leader of the group, and even becomes tempted to just give up and give in to Mister Curtain (the genius behind the messages). His navigation through the story, from coming up with all their plans to being stuck and drawing a blank when in most need, to finally regaining his confidence is an absolute joy to read, his doubts portrayed with incredible realism.
Sticky’s initial cowardice and anxiety at anything remotely dangerous are slowly conquered as he’s the one to fall victim to a severe punishment at the institute and bravely overcome it. His fear and stress over things don’t disappear completely, because they’re a part of him, but he learns to fight through them and offer much needed help during the final showdown. He becomes brave without foregoing fear, an admirable feat. Kate gets a chance to show her craftiness on her own, without Reynie to bail her out or come out with a clever solution in case she gets in trouble. She showcases her quick thinking and intelligence in a fun way, and grows into a strong, caring young lady, especially as she saves Constance at her own expense. Constance, tiny and not especially talented or intelligent, seems to only drag the others down for most of the book, but turns out to be the key with which they would never win otherwise. It’s honestly really wonderful to see how they all grow individually and together and come together to complete their mission.
Another really cool aspect of this book is the illustrations at the start of each chapter. They’re the thing that’s most clear in my head from back when I first read the books, simple but expressive. They do help in building the world of the book in your head, but they’re quirky enough to give the story a magical realism that only makes the experience richer. The book wouldn’t be the same without them.
A lot of the fun stems from the puzzles and riddles the gang must solve as well, and it only gets better while they have to sneak around and find information at the institute. It’s like you’re in on an exciting secret, you’re scared they’ll be caught but going deeper and deeper into the mystery is too exciting to pass up on.
Conflict-wise, it’s dynamic without being overwhelming, and the villainous characters are as hilarious as they are dangerous. They’re real obstacles but with quirks that make them feel real, and they really get your interest and make you wonder how the gang is going to defeat them, from Jillson and Jackson to Mister Curtain himself. SQ was such a great character especially because, while technically one of the bad guys, he also helped a lot and had a genuine liking for the kids, and his clumsiness made him incredibly entertaining.
The resolution is incredibly heartwarming and really well executed in that it’s both a satisfying conclusion and a way in for future works. Finishing the book, I was immediately eager to get the next ones.
If you’re looking for a low-effort book for yourself, or a nice read for any kid in your life, I wholeheartedly recommend The Mysterious Benedict Society. Un-put-downable fun.
As always, thank you for reading, and see you next week!