Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review - The Mysterious Benedict Society

Jason's 3rd grade teacher gave this book to him at the end of the school year last year and we read it over the summer before bedtime. All 3 kids enjoyed listening to the story...I'm not sure Julia (5) followed the plot as a whole, but Andrew (7) totally ate up the idea of the kids as super secret agents (he's our spy-fanatic...planning a "mission impossible" style birthday party for him this month).

To me, the book could be broken up into 3 main chunks ...
  1. The introduction of characters and a stylistic overview of what to expect
  2. The training and building up of the protagonists
  3. The mysterious mission they must undertake.

The book begins by following a very intelligent/observant young orphan, Reynie, as he answers an ad in the paper offering an opportunity for gifted kids who can pass a test to be given that Saturday. Reynie proceeds to the test location. At first, the test is expected to be a standard written exam to test the knowledge and aptitude of the kids. Many of the test takers are brought to tears by the difficulty of the test.

As the test progresses, Reynie learns that the test is not a single written exam, but a series of tests. After each test session, more and more kids are weeded out and we quickly become aware that the test is about more than just what's on the paper or what's in the instructions given.

Naturally, our hero Reynie passes the test(s) and arrives at the home of Mr. Benedict where he and 3 other kids (Kate, Sticky and Constance) are given a debriefing of the Mysterious Benedict Society and meet its founder Mr. Benedict, a mysterious man in himself.

The kids are informed that a dangerous, but very important mission must be undertaken. If successful, all of humanity may be saved from an awful fate. If failed, that fate must surely come to pass. While a bit nervous and frightened, the children naturally accept.

The next few chapters involve the kids growing closer together and undergoing a strange new educational process where Mr. Benedict and his assistants prepares them for the mission. This second phase of the book is short, but very interesting and serves as a great method for giving us more insight into the characters as well as laying down the groundwork for some of the adventures to come.

The heart of the story comes in phase three when the kids undertake the mission and go undercover to a strange island where a seemingly eccentric old man is benignly trying to educate and train a group of kids in his own fashion. The details of the mission and of the evil plot lurking on the island come clear a bit at a time. Our heroic characters grow closer together and become a tight-knit team.

Overall I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the writing of this book. The author did a great job of putting together an intriguing adventure mystery that is intelligent and intriguing. Some of the technological elements seem a bit far-fetched in retrospect, but felt largely believable in the heart of the writing. I think what I liked best (beyond the feeling of kids being secret agent heroes, piecing together clues and puzzles, and saving the day), is that the author didn't "dumb it down" for young kids. This is a book about a group of really smart kids trying to outwit a criminal mastermind. By keeping the clues and the adventure elevated, it all felt more believable and was more fulfilling as the pieces fell together.

Jason and I were excited to find book 2 in the series on sale at the book store as we wrapped up this book. We're looking forward to following the future adventures of the Benedict Society. This is a great read for young kids looking for a well constructed, thoughtful adventure.

Definitely recommended.

4.5 stars out of 5

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