Book Recommendation: The Mysterious Benedict Society

 

The Mysterious Benedict Society is now a miniseries on Disney Plus. Nobody will be surprised to learn the book is better.

The title is actually the title of the entire series, too, which now includes five books–the original, three sequels, and a prequel. Of the five, the original is clearly the best, a modern classic. The others books are just “fun reads”, written for pre-teens. I may be biased, but I think the original book is worth reading as an adult.

The book is wholesome, with clear lines drawn between good and evil both in the external world and within individual characters. It cannot be called a conservative book, because it doesn’t have an underlying message. Rather, it explores themes. It does not attempt to indoctrinate, but it’s the kind of book that makes kids think about questions and allows them to make up their own minds.

With that being said, I think the book was quite prescient regarding one particular aspect in the modern state of the world. (It was published in 2007). This may have been intended as a bit of commentary on something that was happening then, but it’s spot on regarding the situation we have gotten ourselves into during 2021.

Watching the miniseries has reminded me of this a bit. There is a bit of softening and blurring of the themes, and one particular line was changed in a way that irritated me because it diluted what had been a clear moral statement. But the elements that made the book prescient and excellent are there, buried underneath the weirdness that happens when a book is adapted for television.

I have always felt that children’s fiction and middle grade novels have more space to be genuine than genres written for teenagers and adults. Young Adult literature, in particular, often feels like a vehicle for sappy romance. C.S. Lewis argues that adults never really outgrow fairy tails, and I feel this way about The Mysterious Benedict Society, although it’s not quite a fairy tale.

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  1. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    I’ve read some great YA and Adult lit that I’ve tried to get my son into, but it’s still too out there. We’re reading The Strength of His Hands by Lynn Austin right now.

    Most of it is old. The Bronze Bow is excellent. A lot of the YA books I’ve read recently were dystopian. The Hunger Games was certainly not a love story.

    • #1
  2. Dill Coolidge
    Dill
    @Dill

    Stina (View Comment):

    I’ve read some great YA and Adult lit that I’ve tried to get my son into, but it’s still too out there. We’re reading The Strength of His Hands by Lynn Austin right now.

    Most of it is old. The Bronze Bow is excellent. A lot of the YA books I’ve read recently were dystopian. The Hunger Games was certainly not a love story.

    I was too young for The Hunger Games when they first came out, and I kind of dismissed them after reading part of Divergent, which I had heard was like The Hunger Games. But my understanding is that The Hunger Games were far better.  I’ll give them a try!

    I just looked up The Bronze Bow. I liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond, so that one is really interesting!

    Right now I am reading The Mirror Visitor series, or rather awaiting the English translation release of the last book. It was originally published in French, so I’m not sure if it’s considered to be YA or adult fiction. I would consider it adult, since I wouldn’t give it to younger high schoolers. I’m hesitant to recommend it, though, because there are religious plot threads and imagery which might be building toward something terrible or just weird anti-religion themes. I’m continuing to read it, though, because those same plot threads might also be putting together an interesting retelling, or just using bible stories as background. I’m not sure. Otherwise, I think they are great books. (Although the romance subplot is irritating in some ways.)

    It’s not that I dislike modern YA and adult literature, but it’s just harder to find the gems, or even something decent to read, at a first glance while looking at library or bookstore shelves. It feels like you can accidentally pick up a terrible book by accident quite easily while looking for YA or adult, while most children’s literature is just fine. And some YA books seem to have romance kind of shoehorned in to improve sales or something, I don’t know.

     

    • #2
  3. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    My wife and kids loved this book. I enjoyed many aspects of it as well. All of them agree though that the first was the best in the series. I’m sorry that Disney did it instead of someone else. The mouse ruins everything. 

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Dill: C.S. Lewis argues that adults never really outgrow fairy tails,

    Especially the Fractured Fairy Tales. 

    • #4
  5. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I’ve read them all except the most recent sequel, and I think they’re pretty good, although something about the author’s style bugs me a bit. Also, his tendency to dress a 300-page plot in a 500-page overcoat. A ruthless editor was needed on all the books.

    That said, you’re onto something with his plots that involve essentially controlling citizens via the use of fear. If I recall, aren’t all the newspapers filled with articles about some ill-defined “Emergency” which of course requires edicts and restrictions on their lives? I have wondered if Stewart leans rightward a bit. Or at least is a friend of liberty (unlike today’s Democrats).

    While I enjoyed the first book, I would really recommend people take time to read the prequel, which I think has some unusual features for a modern children’s book.

    Some minor spoilers for The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict . . .

    What starts out as a standard “kid attempts to survive cruel orphanage” story involving some hidden treasure, slowly shifts into a story about the maturation of young Nicholas Benedict into someone who puts the needs of others before his own. That, I believe, is the “education” of the title. I’m going to quote from my own review of the book:

    We spend most of the book rooting for Nicholas to achieve his goals, only to have him come to the conclusion that he has his priorities messed up, and that instead of trying to gain riches in order to escape the orphanage, he should be working for the benefit of others.

    This isn’t a bad kid who suddenly turns good. It’s a good kid who, through a random encounter with a caring adult, suddenly sees that he could be a lot better. Stewart then invites the reader to re-evaluate all of Nicholas’s actions and view them through the lens of selflessness.

    This lesson, in a modern children’s book, feels quite subversive and stands in stark contrast to almost every other lesson our self-focused society tells us. Why, it’s practically BIBLICAL! (See Philippians 2:3–4 for example.)

    And there’s another rather subversive element: Throughout the book Nicholas views adults as just more obstacles to overcome. They’re not very bright, and if they’re not outright antagonists, they’re tools Nicholas uses to achieve his ends. This is not uncommon in books for kids. It’s a standard trope throughout kid-centered entertainment. And then Nicholas meets an adult who forces him to see what true selflessness looks like. And it shakes his whole worldview.

    Again, rather unusual in a modern children’s book, and for that I must give Stewart loads of credit.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):
    The mouse ruins everything. 

    Reminds me of how it went with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles.

    I had become a fan of Lewis and was reading everything of his that I could get my hands on. Although I knew he had also written some children’s books, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention.

    Then one time we were in a “Christian” book store with the kids, and I saw the Chronicles of Narnia on a shelf.  I showed them to our daughter (the oldest) asking if they looked interesting. I would spend an hour each evening reading to the kids, and they had some input into the selections, though one rule was that whatever I read had to be interesting to me, too.  She took one look at the covers and said, “I want books about real things.” 

    So I put them back, but at some point bought the set anyway and started reading it to the kids for our evening reading sessions.  They liked them a lot. but maybe we weren’t going fast enough to suit our daughter. We were about ready to begin the last book in the series, and she decided to read ahead for herself instead of waiting for me. (I used to do that as a kid when adults would read to me, but that’s another story.)  I found her reading the book at the dining room table, in tears: “That stupid ape is ruining everything.”  

    • #6
  7. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I also want to recommend another one of Stewart’s books that is unconnected to the Mysterious Benedict Society series: The Secret Keepers. What I appreciated about this book is that the protagonist isn’t the chosen one with special powers or a secret destiny which seems to be the starting point of so many modern kids’ books. Nah, he’s just a normal kid who discovers a magical object. But instead of using it to fulfill some mystical quest, his first thought is how he can use it to make money — which is exactly what a real kid would do. And this pretty much drives his actions for most of the narrative.

    Also, as in The Mysterious Benedict Society, there are shadowy forces at work that must be defeated. But I think this quote near the end gives us a glimpse into Stewart’s thoughts about how society should be organized:

    “It would be years before it was operating the way a proper city should — which is to say, messily, but more or less freely and honestly, with its citizens accountable to one another and to those they’ve chosen to represent them, rather than to entities, spectral or otherwise, whose own interests are not in the interest of the people.”

    I don’t know Stewart’s political views, but this quote stuck out to me.

    • #7
  8. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Dill (View Comment):
    It’s not that I dislike modern YA and adult literature, but it’s just harder to find the gems, or even something decent to read, at a first glance while looking at library or bookstore shelves. It feels like you can accidentally pick up a terrible book by accident quite easily while looking for YA or adult, while most children’s literature is just fine. And some YA books seem to have romance kind of shoehorned in to improve sales or something, I don’t know.

    Modern YA is a cesspit. Sex, vampires, and woke garbage. So much of it in the first person. Almost all of it poorly-written. My teenagers head for that section of the library all the time, and I . . . scrupulously examine what they’re checking out. (Not in an overbearing way, I hope.) They feel like they’re too old for the “children’s” section (though I don’t think I am), and they won’t take my recommendations for grown-up books. “You have really weird tastes, dad! We don’t like the books you like!” I was told last week. I reminded them of all the books I’d read to them and how much they liked them (including the aforementioned Mysterious Benedict Society books), and that shut ’em up, but only a little bit. ; )

    I’ve been asked by my wife to do their literature class this coming school year. (We homeschool.) I think they’re dreading what I might choose to have them read. I was thinking . . . Jane Eyre?

    • #8
  9. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I found her reading the book at the dining room table, in tears: “That stupid ape is ruining everything.” 

    Damn that Shift.

    • #9
  10. Dill Coolidge
    Dill
    @Dill

    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf (View Comment):

    (Removed part of this comment to clear word count)

    That said, you’re onto something with his plots that involve essentially controlling citizens via the use of fear. If I recall, aren’t all the newspapers filled with articles about some ill-defined “Emergency” which of course requires edicts and restrictions on their lives? I have wondered if Stewart leans rightward a bit. Or at least is a friend of liberty (unlike today’s Democrats).

    While I enjoyed the first book, I would really recommend people take time to read the prequel, which I think has some unusual features for a modern children’s book.

    Some minor spoilers for The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict . . .

    What starts out as a standard “kid attempts to survive cruel orphanage” story involving some hidden treasure, slowly shifts into a story about the maturation of young Nicholas Benedict into someone who puts the needs of others before his own. That, I believe, is the “education” of the title. I’m going to quote from my own review of the book:

    We spend most of the book rooting for Nicholas to achieve his goals, only to have him come to the conclusion that he has his priorities messed up, and that instead of trying to gain riches in order to escape the orphanage, he should be working for the benefit of others.

    This isn’t a bad kid who suddenly turns good. It’s a good kid who, through a random encounter with a caring adult, suddenly sees that he could be a lot better. Stewart then invites the reader to re-evaluate all of Nicholas’s actions and view them through the lens of selflessness.

    This lesson, in a modern children’s book, feels quite subversive and stands in stark contrast to almost every other lesson our self-focused society tells us. Why, it’s practically BIBLICAL! (See Philippians 2:3–4 for example.)

    And there’s another rather subversive element: Throughout the book Nicholas views adults as just more obstacles to overcome. They’re not very bright, and if they’re not outright antagonists, they’re tools Nicholas uses to achieve his ends. This is not uncommon in books for kids. It’s a standard trope throughout kid-centered entertainment. And then Nicholas meets an adult who forces him to see what true selflessness looks like. And it shakes his whole worldview.

    Again, rather unusual in a modern children’s book, and for that I must give Stewart loads of credit.

    Yeah, I’m talking about the “Emergency.” Everything is out of control! The economy, the hospital, the schools….

    Surely that wasn’t the state of the media in 2007, as well?

    I felt like Extraordinary Education was the best of the books, besides the original. It’s been too long since I’ve read that one, however, so I can’t remember how good it was or the specific subversive plot points.

     

    • #10
  11. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    I am a great fan of  children’s fiction and pre-teen and teen literature.

    Please keep such reviews coming. I am happy to get your recommendation for a book that sounds intriguing.

     

    • #11
  12. Dill Coolidge
    Dill
    @Dill

    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf (View Comment):

    Dill (View Comment):
    It’s not that I dislike modern YA and adult literature, but it’s just harder to find the gems, or even something decent to read, at a first glance while looking at library or bookstore shelves. It feels like you can accidentally pick up a terrible book by accident quite easily while looking for YA or adult, while most children’s literature is just fine. And some YA books seem to have romance kind of shoehorned in to improve sales or something, I don’t know.

    Modern YA is a cesspit. Sex, vampires, and woke garbage. So much of it in the first person. Almost all of it poorly-written. My teenagers head for that section of the library all the time, and I . . . scrupulously examine what they’re checking out. (Not in an overbearing way, I hope.) They feel like they’re too old for the “children’s” section (though I don’t think I am), and they won’t take my recommendations for grown-up books. “You have really weird tastes, dad! We don’t like the books you like!” I was told last week. I reminded them of all the books I’d read to them and how much they liked them (including the aforementioned Mysterious Benedict Society books), and that shut ’em up, but only a little bit. ; )

    I’ve been asked by my wife to do their literature class this coming school year. (We homeschool.) I think they’re dreading what I might choose to have them read. I was thinking . . . Jane Eyre?

    Vampires! Why so many vampires? Why was that even a trend? Couldn’t they have stopped at like, two vampire-related series?
    I’m fine with first person perspective. It’s easier to write than third person, which might allow for some sloppiness, but first person has never bothered me.

    • #12
  13. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Dill (View Comment):
    I’m fine with first person perspective. It’s easier to write than third person, which might allow for some sloppiness, but first person has never bothered me.

    I think first person allows the writer to be sloppy or write poorly-constructed sentences, and chalk it all up to “Well this is the protagonist doing the talking here.” Rather than being an intentional literary device, it becomes a crutch or excuse. It also suggests that the protagonist might be an author surrogate. When used in those books where the protagonist is also the “chosen one” who has magical mystical specialness, we’re approaching Mary Sue-level.

    • #13
  14. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Dill: C.S. Lewis argues that adults never really outgrow fairy tails,

    Especially the Fractured Fairy Tales.

    You make a false implicit assumption, that Fractured Fairy Tales are a sub-category of fairy tails.  On the contrary, no Fractured Fairy Tales are.

    • #14
  15. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is something I intend to reread.

    • #15
  16. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is something I intend to reread.

    Meh. Though it might be interesting to look at it in light of our current political environment.

    • #16
  17. Midwest Southerner Member
    Midwest Southerner
    @MidwestSoutherner

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is something I intend to reread.

    Thank you for sharing that — it’s one of my favorites and you reminded me to add it to my reread list. :-)

    • #17
  18. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Heh. I have read A Wrinkle in Time several times — actually wrote some curriculum for it — but I’ve never liked it very much.

    • #18
  19. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf (View Comment):
    I’ve been asked by my wife to do their literature class this coming school year. (We homeschool.) I think they’re dreading what I might choose to have them read. I was thinking . . . Jane Eyre?

    I hate that book. Feminism before feminism. She has ideas…

    My son hasn’t discovered the YA section yet. I go and find him stuff.

    Jonathan Renshaw is writing a decent juvenile fiction series. My son has read the 800 page book 1 10 times now.

    • #19
  20. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and found it fascinating.  Her newest book, The Starless Sea, might not be suitable for younger teens, but college kids should like it, too.  Both books involve magic, and like Harry Potter, should be read with careful attention to details.

    • #20
  21. Dill Coolidge
    Dill
    @Dill

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    I read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and found it fascinating. Her newest book, The Starless Sea, might not be suitable for younger teens, but college kids should like it, too. Both books involve magic, and like Harry Potter, should be read with careful attention to details.

    Yeah, it’s great when you find yourself backtracking in a book to try to figure out how you could have missed all the hints and Chekhov’s gun moments. I keep hearing about The Night Circus and want to read it!

    • #21