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.
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.
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.
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?
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.