In the five months since NPR started the Backseat Book Club, we've dipped into fantasy, whimsy, history and even a ghoulish tale. For March we are rolling out a puzzling selection: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. This is a story full of swashbuckling adventure and the kind of head-scratching conundrums that will challenge and entertain young readers.
It is easy to see why this book was a best-seller: The characters careen from one adventure to the next, and as they face a series of baffling tests, the readers are pulled into the knotty problem solving. Don't be surprised if young people grab their pencils or pens to mark up the pages and work out the puzzles and riddles by hand.
This is the story of a group of eccentric children who all respond to a curious newspaper ad: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities"
Though dozens of children respond to the ad, only a few pass the series of mind-bending tests about logic, history and bravery. Those four children make up the Mysterious Benedict Society, named for the man who brings them all together to help stop an evil mastermind who wants to take over the world with a mind-control machine.
The four children have all been orphaned. Each child is somewhat eccentric. Each child is a bit of a misfit. And, each child has a very special gift. Reynie Muldoon, the ringleader of sorts, is great at problem-solving and reading people's emotions. Kate Wetherell is athletic and resourceful. Whether it's a horseshoe magnet or a spool of fishing twine, Kate uses the items in her little red bucket with the skill of James Bond or MacGyver. George "Sticky" Washington is a somewhat nervous kid with a photographic memory. Once he sees something it's forever stuck in his head. Constance Contraire is the youngest of the bunch. She is a constant nuisance but the other kids put up with her because she is especially clever. (Anyone with a younger sibling can relate to little Constance.)
Once the foursome is trained, they are shipped off to an island orphanage of super smart kids that is really just a front for the scheming Mr. Curtain who, as it turns out, happens to be the twin brother of the mysterious Mr. Benedict. The school is called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened — otherwise known as L.I.V.E. That sounds wonderful until you realize that spelled backwards it reads as EVIL.
Almost everything inside this book is an enigma. We loved this story because it serves up a dose of education along with the adventure. Children learn about Morse code and chess moves and secret societies. There are also powerful lessons about friendship and camaraderie. As the pressures of their mission begin to pull them apart, the fearless foursome discover that they cannot save the world unless they figure out how to work as individuals while also banding together.
There are also powerful lessons for adults. For instance, there may be one right answer to a particular puzzle but usually each child takes a slightly different approach — a sly reminder from Stewart that there is no single path to wisdom.
Stewart himself is quite a sly fellow. He's a jokester at heart, something you will notice off the bat when you encounter characters with names like Nomansan Island and Ledroptha Curtain. (We suspect Stewart would get along quite well with the writers for the credits at Car Talk.) From the very beginning, we hoped the Backseat Book Club would help place authors close to children and in that regard we are going to be offering a special treat: Though Stewart is in high demand at libraries, bookstores and classrooms, he can spend only so much time on the road. When he sits down with us in March, children all over the country will get a taste of his effervescent sense of humor and his love of words.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, first published in 2007, is the first in a series that also includes The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict's Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas and Curious Conundrums and the soon to be published The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict.
We hope you enjoy this book as much as we have. We've included a sample chapter to give you a taste and some sample puzzles (below) to rev up your thinking caps. Please remember to send us your questions and comments for Trenton Lee Stewart. Perhaps you will even want to send your own puzzles and riddles. In any case, we're all ears.