In The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, four exceptional children wind up going on the adventure of a lifetime after answering a rather strange ad. The ad appears in a newspaper in a fictional place called Stonetown. It reads, "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"
Dozens of children answer the ad and try to conquer a series of mind-boggling tests. But only four are able to pass. All are orphans, and each is a genius in his or her own way.
Author Trenton Lee Stewart explains how these children come together to form a sort of pint-size Mod Squad. The character Reynie is "a remarkable problem solver," says Stewart. "He's got a quick and facile intelligence. He has a tendency to see things that other people miss."
The character known as Sticky got his name because "everything he reads or observes sticks to his brain," says Stewart. "He has a photographic memory."
Kate is "athletic and acrobatic," according to Stewart. "She's handy with all sorts of tools. She's sort of a genius at solving physical problems."
And Constance "just appears to be a very small, slightly pudgy, angry poet who's always making rude poems about the people around her," says Stewart.
Mr. Benedict uses that ad and all those tests to find kids who have the right stuff, kids who could go undercover and save the world. Assuming different identities, they attend a school run by the evil Mr. Curtain. He's up to no good. The kids must use their skills to stop his plan for worldwide mind control.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is filled with twists and turns and constant conundrums. It's not just mysterious. It's also fantastic and heart thumping and just plain fun.
When asked which he thought up first — the curious characters or the world that they occupy — Stewart says the idea for the book began with images of puzzles and riddles.
"The first one was an image of a child — I didn't know yet if it was a boy or a girl — taking an incredibly difficult test that was more than it appeared to be," the author says. "I knew there was a secret to the test. So once I started asking who these kids are, why they're taking these difficult tests, it sort of led to the notion that they were being recruited for a difficult mission that only children could accomplish."
Early in The Mysterious Benedict Society, the children are led into an empty room. Above a door on the opposite wall, there's a large sign that says, "Cross the room without setting foot on a blue or black square."
Describing the challenge before them, Stewart says, "It appears that it would be impossible to cross the room without stepping on blue or black, since the yellow parts are so widely scattered that it would be difficult to jump from one to the other. That's a riddle that the kids all solve in a different way."
Stewart loved books growing up and says he always wanted to be involved in the big adventures he found in books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Watership Down.
"I was always interested in the possibility maybe of finding my way into a big adventure," he says. "I wanted to go to Sesame Street! I remember distinctly running through my neighborhood, thinking I knew how to get to Sesame Street, and then finally finding myself among some scrub trees and realizing I don't know where to go from here. I had to just mope back home."
To communicate with their mentor, the kids in The Mysterious Benedict Society have to learn Morse code. In Morse code, words are written through dashes and dots. Stewart says some young readers send him letters written in this code.
"I didn't know it when I started out to write the book," Stewart admits. "I just thought that it seemed a good fit for the characters' mission. But I do feel compelled to solve them, though, because if a 13-year-old decided to write me a letter in Morse code saying, 'Help! I'm being held hostage by aliens,' I would feel like I don't want to leave this young reader abandoned."
Mary Polly Chino, a Backseat Book Clubber from Stewart's hometown of Little Rock, Ark., wanted to know if Stewart came up with all the puzzles and riddles himself.
Stewart did in fact invent these puzzles and riddles himself, taking inspiration from a chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, called "Riddles in the Dark." In this episode, Bilbo Baggins has to solve life-or-death riddles posed to him by Gollum.
"I wanted the whole book to be just like that chapter," says Stewart. "I think when I started to write The Mysterious Benedict Society that I had that kind of thing in mind — the notion of having to be able to solve puzzles and riddles because enormous stakes rode upon your ability to do that."
The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first book in a three-part series. Backseat Book Club listeners can be the first to read an excerpt from the fourth book, a prequel to the series called The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. It can be found here.