The Mysterious Benedict Society is one of those breezy, yet exciting reads that keeps me reading children’s fiction, even though I’m no longer the target audience. Meaty enough for adults at 471 pages (trade paperback) but written in a linear, simple style for younger readers, Benedict combines precocious orphans with perilous adventures to great effect.
Four orphans–Reynie Muldoon, George “Sticky” Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire–are recruited to form a crack spy operation after passing a series of mind-bending tests. Their mission is to penetrate a shadowy operation threatening to topple governments worldwide and brain-wash the unsuspecting masses. Since the quartet are children (all younger than twelve) and unusually “truth loving,” they are uniquely qualified for this mission. The fact that they are all essentially orphans is a plus; there are no parents raising objections to putting their children in danger. Eager to prove themselves and eke out a place in a very confusing world, the children accept.
This really outlines the first third or so of the book, with the rest devoted to the kids’ mission. While this could be a straightforward adventure story, Stewart skillfully uses the story as a platform on which to ruminate on the nature of friendship, belonging, and the difficult choices we all have to make. This book would not have worked without the genuinely likeable characters (even Constance, whose contrariness can be a little grating) and a fast-moving plot, but the underlying and surprisingly philosophical themes make it a worthwhile read. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.