The Mysterious Benedict Society has been one such book. I don't remember the first time I saw it, but whenever I've chanced to spy it waiting to be reshelved or checked out, it's shone up from the pile and gently whispered to me, 'take and read! Take and read!'
Which is almost what the creepy villain in the book is doing to the whole world – whispering messages into our minds. (Sorry, hope that wasn't too much of a spoiler.)
Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance are four children who are, one way or another, without parents. The four of them have responded to a curious newspaper ad that calls gifted children to participate in a series of tests that will lead them to 'Special Opportunities.' Each child passes the tests using their unique gifts, and are admitted into the presence of the eccentric but entirely loveable green-plaid-clad Mr. Benedict, who immediately informs them that, should they choose to join him, they will be in constant and terrible danger. Who could resist? The children band together and travel to Nomansan Island, where they attend a school bent on controlling the minds of children and, ultimately, the world.
Several things about the book impressed me. It was well written and not over-simplified, covering a wide range of reading levels and, though quite long, moved quickly enough to keep readers engaged. But even more impressive was the author's ability to present to the reader's mind, clearly but not condescendingly, the need for people to use their heads and think about the information that reaches them without simply swallowing everything the media feeds them. One of the main themes of the book is the love of truth, which is one thing the four children all have in common; in fact, it is what marks them for success in their endeavor to expose the villain's plot. Another theme is the importance of each person using their unique abilities to work with each other towards a common goal. In this way, the book is a strong Christian allegory. Like Christ's church, these followers of the truth must work with each other, even when they don't get along or don't understand what is going on or where they are being led, towards the goal set before them. The characters struggle with doubt, anxiety, fear and selfishness, but in the end they are triumphant.
The Mysterious Benedict Society reminded me of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, but while they had similarities they were also markedly opposite. Lemony Snicket's orphans are completely alone and unguided, with only themselves to look to for comfort and direction. They experience numberless catastrophes and attempt to unravel deeply confusing mysteries, all the while struggling to survive. Stewart's orphans, however, are taught and led by someone wise and experienced, who does not attempt to shelter them but rather places them in danger now to prevent disaster in the future. While the Series of Unfortunate Events ends with many unanswered questions and carries a fatalistic message, The Mysterious Benedict Society ends with hope, joy, and a sense of purpose. I enjoyed Lemony Snicket's series VERY much, but I have to say, having read this book, I find it comes out on top.
The Mysterious Benedict Society was brilliant, and I don't know why it took me such a long time to getting around to reading it. (Thank you, Carrie, for choosing it for book club!)
Trenton Lee Stewart has written two books following this, and is working on a prequel. He is also the author of an adult novel, Flood Summer.