Reading in virus time
I’m sorry for the gap between posts—I, like most people, have been self-quarantining, and in my concentration on reading up about various issues on social media I haven’t spent a lot of time on recreational reading. I have been more drawn to making art during this time, simply because I have many artist friends who are doing likewise and it’s fun to share it in various groups.
I haven’t quit reading entirely, however, and this past week I continued my exploration of children’s books, but this time instead of revisiting old favorites I read one that I somehow missed when it was first published back in 2007—The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I probably missed it because that was the year I graduated from library school at UCLA. Nothing like getting a degree to prevent you from reading what you want!
We read the prequel to this book, entitled The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, when I was running the 6th and 7th grade book club at Burbank Public Library. It follows the fortunes of Mr. Benedict when he was nine, an orphan with a pickle-shaped nose and an unfortunate habit of falling asleep at the drop of a hat. In this book he was sent to a new orphanage, where he had to use his peculiar genius to evade bullies, pull the wool over the eyes of the pompous adults, and solve a mystery.
When I finished reading that book, I wrote on Goodreads:
“I sort of hate how much I love this book, because now I’m going to have to read all the others. And while that is a delightful prospect, it’s also a daunting one, given that there are three of them, each of which is 400+ pages, and
I have many other things in life to do besides read!”
The rest of my reaction was equally laudatory:
This was such a well done, engaging, literary book.
I was worried that it wouldn’t be mature enough for 6th- and 7th-graders, given that the protagonist is nine years old (the “wisdom” in reading for children and teens is that most kids like to read about people who are at least a year or two older than they themselves are), but given the vocabulary, the descriptions, the scene-setting and world-building, and the wonderful dialogue, I think this book would appeal to almost anyone who likes this sort of thing.
It made me think about Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, simply because the protagonist in that one is also a precocious genius, and because I was continually debating with my colleagues over the audience for that book. The publishers described it as a middle-grade novel, but the subtleties of the concepts conveyed by Willow’s story are more mature. Similarly, although Nicholas is nine, this book is universal in its appeal. Also, there’s just something about the boarding school/orphanage trope that is immediately attractive,
Although that book is not a prerequisite for the rest of the series, I was glad that I had read it first, since it gave me a little more context for who Mr. Benedict was and what one could expect from him. I really enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society; I particularly liked the beginning where the children take the tests that are all puzzles designed to ferret out the truly innovative from the merely smart.
I also enjoyed the interactions of Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, and how they went from acting separately to functioning as a team, bringing all their complementary assets to bear on the various problems they encountered. Although the story has many ridiculous and exaggerated aspects (mass hypnotism, world domination, highly unlikely physical feats), underlying those is a sweet tale of neglected children who are enabled to find each other and form lasting bonds, with the aid of some compassionate adults. It has an old-fashioned flavor but in the best way possible. In fact, I was somewhat surprised when I looked up the publication date because, based on both the story-telling and the writing, I was convinced it dated from back in
I can’t leave this review without complimenting the illustrations of Carson Ellis—quirky and delightful, they add substantially to both the story and the mood.
Although I bought all three volumes of the Benedict trilogy, I think I will leave the other two for now and read some adult fare. I have two Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths lined up waiting on my Kindle.
If you are curious about my artistic escapades, please take a look at my art blog, at https://theslipcover.blogspot.com.