The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stuart; ill. by Carson Ellis
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007
As a girl, I loved mysteries, and I especially loved Nancy Drew.
Most of the mystery stories and TV shows of my childhood starred heroes, not heroines (think Columbo, Encyclopedia Brown, and Magnum). But Nancy Drew, obviously, was a girl–and an inspiring one at that.
She was independent, street savvy, and incredibly self-possessed. She was super-smart and brave, and her friends and family admired and respected her for it.
Plus, she drove her snappy little convertible like she was auditioning for the car-chase scene in The Italian Job.
By now, kids’ mystery stories are much closer to achieving gender parity. There still aren’t many well-written, girls-only mysteries; but there are quite a few with girl-heavy ensemble casts.
Trenton Lee Stuart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society is one such story. Though told primarily from the viewpoint of a boy named Reynie Muldoon, the book actually has four main characters, two of whom are girls: Kate Wetherall and Constance Contraire, along with Reynie and Sticky Washington.
The story begins as the children take a series of challenging tests. Their stellar performance earns them a meeting with the test-giver: a wealthy, well-connected man named Mr. Benedict, who reveals that the tests were a selection mechanism for a mission to (what else?) save the world.
Mr. Benedict wants the children to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school run by a man Mr. Benedict calls The Sender. The Sender is using the runaways and orphans who attend his school to broadcast subliminal messages throughout the world. The messages erase some people’s memories and keep others in a constant state of confusion and despair. Mr. Benedict knows that the Sender plans to take advantage of this state of “Emergency” to do something awful–but he needs the children to find out what, and how and when.
If it sounds cheesy, it is. But that’s one thing that’s great about this book. The cheese is smart, nudge-nudge-wink-wink cheese, of the variety found in movies like Shaun of the Dead or Naked Gun (I promise I’m not trying to see how many movie references I can cram into one post).
This is also a beautifully crafted, edge-of-your-seat mystery, complete with plot twists, last-minute rescues, and more than one surprise ending.
But best of all, of course, are the children. Or, for the purposes of this blog, Kate and Constance.
Kate, a former circus acrobat, is the physical adept of the bunch–a nice choice, since that role usually goes to a boy. She’s also incredibly fearless and the group’s resident risk-taker, willing to dash in where her friends fear to tread.
Constance, under the right circumstances, is almost as fearless as Kate. She’s also ten times as stubborn, and she turns out to hold the key to the villain’s defeat (another role that often goes to a boy).
There is no doubt that both girls are essential to the mission. In fact, without any one of the four kids, the mission would fail utterly, and the children know it. Which is something else I find inspiring about this book.
Unlike many stories for girls, this one has no chauvinist male foil. In this story, girls and boys treat each other as equals. Instead of antagonizing one other, they work together, support one another, even risk their lives for each other.
And the boys don’t just tolerate the girls’ strength and intelligence–they’re thankful for it.
The result is a story that acknowledges–better yet, reminds us–that girls can find the motivation for success within themselves. And that there are people in this world who appreciate, support, and encourage strong, smart girls.
The ultimate message to girls? “Find your strength and own it. Ignore the haters–there are people out there who will work with you and for you, not against you. Team up with them, and who knows? You just might save the world.”
The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first in a series of three (so far) mystery/adventures. Two additions to the series–a book of puzzlers and a prequel about Mr. Benedict’s childhood–are forthcoming.