The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (2007) – I never really understood the YA (Young Adult) and MG (Middle Grade) labels on books until I read this. With Harry Potter and the young heroes in Andre Norton’s books, the protagonist is a kid (and kids love to read them); however, they are not strictly YA or MG. The reason is the writing style. Trenton Lee Stewart shares an exciting adventure of four unique heroes, but the writing is simple and straightforward. No complex sentence structure, no big words. It’s about kids, and it’s written in the style a kid would use.
It all begins with a mysterious ad asking kids if they’re special and inviting them to take tests to enter an exclusive school. Four orphans (or runaways) think of clever ways to pass the strange tests. There’s Reynie, the hero. He’s a nice boy, smart, bright, and brave. He meets Sticky, a shy kid with a photographic memory. Then, there’s Kate, a sort of McGyver character able to solve anything with her bucket of tools. Finally, there’s Constance, a small kid with a bad attitude and, according to the kindly gentleman who runs the school, hidden talents.
After meeting the odd Mr. Benedict and his colorful staff, the children discover they’ve not qualified for a special school but have been selected as secret agents to go undercover at the Institute on a nearby island. There, Mr. Curtain (Mr. Benedict’s evil twin) is working on a scheme to take over the world through mind control. He uses children to send out subliminal messages through the television and radio and is preparing to initiate the Improvement where everyone is subjugated or mind-wiped. Unsure but willing to help, Reynie and the others enter the Institute, first as students then as actual broadcasters working with the mind-altering machine called the Whisperer.
Not only do the fantastic four have to deal with demanding lessons, cruel fellow students, and suspicious Mr. Curtain, but they have to find out how the leader plans to accomplish the Improvement and enslave the world. They don’t fit in, but Mr. Benedict – watching them from the mainland and sending them cryptic Morse code messages – promises them that by working together, they can defeat the evil mastermind. Reynie and the others overcome their own self-doubts, believe Mr. Benedict when he says he’ll pull them out when they discover how Mr. Curtain intends to take over the world, and struggle to join Curtain’s inner circle of students to find ways to stop the villain.
The four kids are charming. Each has his or her own gifts and baggage, and Mr. Benedict is correct – only by working together can they hope to defeat the enemy. Reynie is the understated leader of the foursome, but each of the others has their own opportunities to shine. Shy Sticky finds he’s much braver than he thought, Kate proves the ductwork in the school makes a great means to get around the school undiscovered. Constance, constantly napping and perpetually crabby, proves too much for the Whisperer in the exciting climax.
The simplistic language makes the 485 pages go by fast, and the kids’ personalities shine. Putting the children in danger might be worrisome, but Mr. Benedict explains it well: if the kids can’t do it, the entire world is doomed to be mindless automatons.