Thursday, January 21, 2010

BOTD: The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (And a ramble about children's books as books.)

Yep, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book. But a fat one, so I feel no guilt about counting it as one of my 100+.

Summary: Four gifted children experience alarmingly special opportunities.

Rapid Fire: Emergency. Black pawn. Trick questions. Green plaid. Hair remover. New school. Kaleidoscope. Narcolepsy. Cafeteria food. Personal hygiene. Poison apples, poison worms. Fly straight and right. Snakes and dogs.

First Paragraph Score: 3.5/5. I should be giving it a low score - it has many of the flaws that I criticize. But it made me hurry to turn the page to read the end of the paragraph, so it's a success, even if I don't understand why.

Overall Score: 3.5/5 for a children's book, 2.5/5 for books in general.

Recommendation: Worth reading. Worth buying. I'm buying the sequels and reading them, too.

The split score above made me think of books that transcend "children's bookness", becoming unarguably great books no matter what the reader's age. In my own lists, this includes Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harriet the Spy and Ramona the Pest and much of Roald Dah's work and much of Rumer Godden's work, including The Doll's Houseand plenty of others. Harry Potter probably qualifies, too, but I need a little more time to make up my mind.

This book, while very good, isn't in that category - it's still primarily a children's book. I think that its author might be able to achieve that transcendence, but he hasn't yet in this one.

I think that this is largely because the book lapses, too often, into an adult point of view. It's the viewpoint of someone who loves and admires the child characters, but who is, all the same, separate from them.

Just one example:
Part of Kate believed this - a very important part, for Kate's sense of invincibility was the main thing that had sustained her all her young life alone. But another part did not believe this - and it, too, was an important part, for unless you know about this part it is impossible to understand how brave a thing Kate was about to do.
The speaker loves and admires Kate, but he's still putting himself in a position outside of her, a position where it's appropriate for him to analyze and evaluate her. He's not inside. In Ramona The Pest, I don't need an explanation of why Ramona feels the way that she does about, for example, that red ribbon. I feel it, in my gut. I'm inside.

The book is also a little too protective. The best children's books often have a mercilessness about them or, to be overblown about it, a savagery. Alice in Wonderland has this, and Roald Dahl's books do. The Oz books don't, and the Oz books, to me, also don't "transcend". This book seems to worry about frightening or upsetting the child reader, about maintaining some reliably decent touchstones in the world. And I think that that protectiveness is a flaw.

Also, it appears that the author wants to teach us things. That's not inherently wrong, but when it's true, I think that the original outline of the lesson needs to be very carefully and thoroughly erased. Here, I can see traces of the original checklist through the story. Demonstrate the character flaws, and how they have value in the right situation. Check. Demonstrate how very different people can form friendships. Check. Demonstrate that people often have reasons for their poor behavior. Check.

It's protective. It's loving. It tries to teach. I suppose that's why I chose that illustration up there for this post, given that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the book itself. And while all of that is admirable, it's not what makes the greatest children's books. This book is very good, but it's firmly within its niche.

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. i was given this book for xmas, and haven't been able to get into it. i'm not liking the author much I realize is my problem. condescending? i'm not sure what. I want to read the Hunger Games. That sounds like a good kids book. I wonder if I can trade for it?

  2. I saw it more positively than condescending, but I suspect that we are talking about the same thing - a definitely adult, separate, evaluating point of view. I never heard of the Hunger Games - I'll have to look.