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Riddles, Codes, and Rhymes: Trenton Lee Stewart’s Praiseworthy Book Series, The Mysterious Benedict Society

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Peril abounds, but so does friendship, truth, laughter, and courage.

If you haven’t met Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, you are missing out on the most delightful quartet. The four members of Trenton Lee Stewart’s bestselling series The Mysterious Benedict Society bounded onto the literary stage in 2007 and have been captivating audiences ever since.

Books about clever children abound. Fairy tales are full of astute youngest princes, Encyclopedia Brown and Nate the Great are sharp sleuths, and Ramona Quimby is logical and literal. Some are annoying (think Harriet the Spy), others are too perfect (think Nancy Drew). Rarely do we find a book about a reportedly smart child — or children — in which said child is a relatable or interesting protagonist. Enter The Mysterious Benedict Society, a group of exceptional children who are both charming and familiar.

Amusing and witty in style, Stewart’s books have been compared to Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and others of that genre, but he seems to have a lighter touch. Peril abounds, but so does friendship, truth, laughter, and courage. He has not only created a deeply interesting story but has also presented readers with a fascinating, endearing set of characters. Allow me to introduce them to you:

Mr. Benedict: a genius in every sense of the word, and one of the kindest, most caring individuals you could ever meet. Unruly white hair, a lumpy nose (like a potato!), and always wears a green plaid suit.

Number Two: Mr. Benedict’s faithful assistant. Very smart, always snacking, and seems to possess an abundant supply of yellow clothing.

Rhonda Kazembe: Also Mr. Benedict’s faithful assistant and also very smart. Gorgeous coal-black skin and long black hair.

Milligan: A perpetually sad man who lost his memory and hopes Mr. Benedict will help him regain it. He is our protagonists’ bodyguard and a master of ingenious disguises.

And our main protagonists:

Reynie Muldoon: An orphan, and an average-looking boy in all respects, but considerably above average in his ability to solve problems. Has a wonderful knack for understanding people, and has a strong love of truth.

Sticky (George) Washington: Skinny, bald boy of about eleven, and the repository of an enormous amount of knowledge due to his prodigious memory and reading abilities. Isn’t exactly an orphan, but, well, it’s a sad story.

Kate Wetherall: Would love it if you called her “The Great Kate Weather Machine.” Is incredibly agile and fast, can calculate distances and spaces in a single glance, and never goes anywhere without her red bucket belted on her hip. Her mother is dead, and her father left when she was a baby.

Constance Contraire: The youngest, and most stubborn, member of the group, Constance is rather grumpy and prone to making up unpleasant rhymes. But she has an important role to play in this tale. . . . Also an orphan.

Furthermore, no good story would be complete without a sinister villain and some henchmen, and Ledroptha Curtain, Jackson, Jillson, Martina Crowe, and the Ten Men exactly fill this bill. These short descriptions do little to convey the charm (or loathsomeness) of the characters, each of whom is developed with great care by Stewart as the series progresses.

Though the basic plot of book 1 isn’t a new idea (young protagonists must stop evil plot to take over the world), the mix of riddles and word play is well balanced with a fast-moving narrative. Stewart manages to capture a wonderful element of impossibility, particularly when describing some of Milligan’s stunts, by describing often implausible deeds in a matter-of-fact way that amuses and catches the reader off guard. Even the book’s setting is mysterious, as the only information we’re given is that it’s a coastal U.S. town (probably on the Atlantic side). This, among other elements, helps create a feeling of timelessness, expanding the book’s reach and scope.

What is this sinister plot? Well, that would be telling! Without giving too much away, though, Mr. Benedict has assembled this team of children, strong emphasis on the team aspect, and explains to them that the reason for the country’s vaguely named Emergency has to do with a type of subliminal messaging being telegraphed into people’s minds through radio and TV. If they accept their role in his team, the children must go to an island school run by the secretive personage believed to be sending the messages and find out as much as they can.

Readers see much of the story from Reynie’s perspective, and he becomes the de facto leader of the group. And this is key: They are a group, and Mr. Benedict, whom they come to trust, has insisted they must always remember this. He chose them each for a reason, and the group won’t work with even one member missing. Though they do struggle to work with each other’s quirks (particularly Constance’s grumpiness), Kate’s endless enthusiasm and cheerfulness and Reynie’s considerate attentiveness to others help bind the group into a cohesive whole. A number of times throughout the book, the children find themselves frustrated with other members or sincerely wishing they could leave a member out for a certain task. But they never do, which strengthens both their friendships and their likelihood of success.

This first book touches on many themes, from friendship to courage to teamwork to the search for truth. Neither preachy nor condescending, the story explores these themes in many ways and always manages to sprinkle in moments of laughter and surprise.

At the risk of being accused of glossing over good tales, suffice it to say, the second and third installments of this series, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, are thrilling, adventure-filled stories, but each lacks some of the novelty that made the first book so captivating. It is the fourth book, published in 2019, which merits a bit of attention here.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages, upon first read, is intense and engrossing, building on characters and themes from the previous three books to a dramatic climax. When it was all said and done however, it seemed an unnecessary story, almost as if Stewart had a number of fascinating concepts to work out but couldn’t get them all to mesh.

In this iteration, the team is still together, but they’re a little older now and have started to grow apart. The main struggle is, as with most good children’s books, growing up and how to do it well. In an interview about the story, Stewart said that, in the fourth book, “Mr. Benedict shares his notion that we don’t become different people as we age — we become more people. We continue to be who we once were, but we also become new, more complex versions of those younger selves.” Unfortunately, the author’s conclusion doesn’t seem to match up with this notion of Mr. Benedict. The children are a close-knit group, and they don’t want to let go of this, [SPOILER], so they decide to postpone pursuing other careers to stay close together in Stonetown. But isn’t moving on (though not forgetting dear friends, of course) part of growing up? Perhaps I’m missing a key point, and I’m open to persuasion, but, for now, I feel unsatisfied with the story’s trajectory.

I would also like to issue a warning about the new Disney+ TV series based on the first book. As I have detailed already, this show seems to have taken a few names and a couple of plot points from the book and created the rest of the world to suit its needs. While I understand that TV is a specific medium that should be appreciated as such, its telling of this tale takes the original story’s truth and cleverness and turns it on its head. Renyie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance are dear literary friends worth having, and experiencing them first through this show will ruin readers’ ability to truly develop a friendship with them.

Whatever the shortcomings of books 2 through 4 may be, this series is still at the top of my must-read/always-recommend list for its overall engaging style, excellent characters, and unexpected plot twists. Renyie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance — they’re all waiting for you to join them as they crack Morse code, conquer their fears, and discover the power of laughter.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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