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Mysterious Benedict Society

I watch the CBS t.v. show Scorpion. In no way do I think that this show is high art, but it is 42 minutes of cerebral satisfaction packaged in adrenaline-laced Hollywood  brain candy. I know that there is precious little about Scorpion that even resembles reality but I still find much to enjoy in the experience of watching socially dysfunctional geniuses solve another of the world’s problems before something catastrophic happens. I love the way that they must work as a team to have any chance of making it through the episode. I love that they refer to each other as family. I love the way that the science is real and the relationships are believable even if the plot lines are ridiculous.

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And, I am absolutely certain that someone who built that t.v. show is a fan of the The Mysterious Benedict Society. Just in case you aren’t here for an analysis of Scorpion, I will save the comparisons for the comments section and move on to what you probably are here for: Reynie, Kate, Sticky, Constance, Rhonda, Number Two, Milligan and Mr. Benedict.

…every person in the car, adult and child alike, realized then that they trusted this eleven-year-old boy quite without reservation. – The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Recently I have been on a Rabbit Room kick. It started with a passion for The Green Ember which naturally led to a love of The Wingfeather Saga. During the Wingfeather Saga’s Kickstarter campaign closing party, Andrew and Pete Peterson recommended Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s gorgeous book, The Angel Knew Papa, which I promptly ordered. After loving Angel and then falling totally in love with The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, I was convinced that a book recommendation from Story Warren or The Rabbit Room would translate into some measure of authentically satisfying reading. Thanks to them, I fell into 100 Cupboards and Outlaws of Time, and have added N.D. Wilson to my list of favorite authors.

In the last year, I have felt strongly, that God is raising up a generation of storytellers whose writing will inspire, nurture and challenge this new generation of readers (and their parents) to confront the worldly darkness that seeks to extinguish our God-given light. I have been deeply grateful for these storytellers and their families who support them in their craft. They are writing stories that speak to the challenges we have and they are subtly, or not so subtly, pointing us to the Maker who is the Prime Author.

“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” – The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Recently, I reached for The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, which is more mainstream and more secular. I know practically nothing about the author and I don’t mean to presume any worldview or intention into his writing. According to an interview with NPR, Stewart claims The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as his two favorite books from childhood. He seems to have excellent taste in children’s literature and that makes me inclined to trust him a bit just for that. All that I am confessing is that The Mysterious Benedict Society is noticeably different from Rabbit Room books – there are moral blindspots that parents may wish to anticipate before reading with their children.

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This exciting and intelligent book is a celebration of the team and family that makes full use of the differing gifts of its members. In the chapter “Squares and Arrows,” each of the children is tested in a room that has a floor which is painted with a blue, black and yellow checkerboard pattern. On the facing wall, there is a sign that reads: “CROSS THE ROOM WITHOUT SETTING FOOT ON A BLUE OR BLACK SQUARE.” Each child handles the challenge differently. Kate solves it with incredible physical ingenuity and some acrobatics. Sticky solves it almost mathematically. Reynie solves it by noticing that the rectangles are not squares and therefore this is a trick. Each child possesses a certain genius that is critical to the success of their mission to save the world. 
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Mr. Benedict is recruiting children, specific children, to do some very dangerous espionage work. The children are going into a special school as undercover agents and their success is entirely dependent on their ability to draw on each other’s strengths, cultivate meaningful friendship within the team, and keep their moral compass grounded.

There is much to appreciate in this almost 500 page adventure novel and series starter. It is incredibly clever, the characters are so well drawn that they almost instantly feel familiar, the story has strong pro-life themes, and the characters are doing noble work.

There are moral cheats or blind spots, however. In one case, the team is forced to cheat on a test in order to maintain their cover. The characters are anguished about it but ultimately let the circumstance dictate their moral code. It is additionally frustrating that it is the adult mentors who suggest the cheating. This kind of theme feels inappropriate in a children’s book. Perhaps this is one of the weaknesses of turning children into special agents?

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In another situation, the kids need their peers to get sick so that they can maintain their cover, and so that their numbers can come up more quickly in a rotation. Our heroes instigate widespread food poisoning and, sadly, relish the pain that it causes to their enemies.

I really did enjoy The Mysterious Benedict Society, and am looking forward to reading more in the series. My dissatisfaction with the moral missteps causes me to consider two things in equal measure: how grateful I am for Story Warren and The Rabbit Room, and how excellent a parent/child book club book this would be. There is no question that I have been spoiled of late to read books which validate the vision my husband and I have for our family. But the reality is that we live in this world. There is nothing truly harmful in the Benedict books. There are things to talk about, but there are also things to celebrate. I am grateful for the conversations that we will have over this one.

In a conversation last month about The Penderwicks, Sarah Mackenzie reminded me that our children need modern stories with modern moral complexities so that they can test their values and know that THEY ARE STILL TRUE.  I think that as parents, we have the sacred task of discerning when, how, and in what ways we are going to let the world in so that we can teach our children how to stand strong and push back.

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5 thoughts on “Mysterious Benedict Society

  1. Sara, I appreciate your review, but I’m going to challenge you on the cheating point. It did strike a chord with me when I read it several years ago, too, (I’m a rule follower) but consider this: Do you think that Bonhoeffer was wrong to plot Hitler’s assassination? Do you think Corrie ten Boom was wrong to basically steal ration cards to feed the Jews she was illegally hiding during the Holocaust? I’m guessing you think both of these people were justified in their actions. My point is not that the end justifies the means. However, sometimes you are faced with a choice between following the rules and doing what is right. I think the second greatest commandment, to love others, when it conflicts with a “rule” trumps it. And isn’t that what the kids were doing in MBS? They were trying to save people, and they had to break rules to do so. If the laws in our country become hostile to Christians, I hope my kids will know when they should break the rules to do what is right. (ps. I don’t think it was right for them to relish their enemies food poisoning, though).

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    1. Carolyn, I completely see your point and I think that it has merit.

      My issue with the cheating was not so much the cheating itself as it was the fact that in a children’s book it felt misplaced – more so because it was suggested by the adults.

      I think that there is a time and a place for the discussions of heroes like Ten Boom, Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein and Irene Gut. For that matter, my hero John Paul II challenged the Nazis and the Russians in bold ways during the Polish occupation including being in an underground illegal seminary.

      Resistance to evil can take many different forms and be way outside of our comfort zone but still be right and good. And you are right, our kids need stories that help them see that. (Like Outlaws of Time and how Sam kills evil men.)

      The reason why I highlighted it in this review was because I wanted parents to know that it was present. I figured that some parents may want to handle it differently than I might and would appreciate the advance warning.

      If I were a parent handing a book off to a child to read independently, I think that I would want to know that some moral complexity existed so that we could talk about it and I could mentor my kids as they wrestled with it.

      But, I truly do see your point. And I am wondering if I should rethink how I phrased it or add another explanation.

      Thank you for giving me something substantial to chew on!

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  2. Sara, I am so thrilled to have found you on Facebook and now to realize what a treasure your site is. I was considering adding this book to our collection, but I find it so hard to assess modern books by their small blurb on the back and so I often just avoid them. Your review is thoughtful and thorough and I thank you for it!

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    1. Hello Camille!! God be praised for social media. Seriously! It is such a blessing to be able to connect with other kindred spirits over important things like books, faith, and education. I am so glad that we are walking together on this journey!

      I am so glad that this review is helpful. Like you, I listen to what people recommend, I read the blurbs, look at GoodReads reviews… and I still wonder. We decided that part of our mission here would be to give parents an ingredient list for each book we review. “Expect to find these things… we like these things… these things leave us troubled… you decide for your family.”

      I am so glad that it is helpful. We love old books, but we know that many modern books rightfully are vying for our attention. It is important to know what is in them.

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