C.S. Lewis, the author of the well-loved Chronicles of Narnia, once said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” There are books that we fall in love with during childhood, which, upon returning to, seem almost lifeless compared to the shining stories from our memories. Discovering that a book you once loved does not hold the same lustre it did for you as a child feels like shedding another layer of yourself as you grow further and further away from the person you used to be. Those books return to their shelves, and are forgotten in the passage of time. But good children’s books are the ones we pick up after years have passed, and still dazzle us with their brilliance. Writers of children’s literature often create strange and magical worlds that transport young readers into an alternate reality. If not explicitly magical in nature, a good number of children’s books contain an element of something new, of something full of wonder, of something that gives the reader space to let their imagination run wild. This provides writers with the opportunity to create a utopian haven within the pages of their book, one that does away with modern-day problems.
However, the books that directly address these problems are the ones that still ring true years after its reader has turned the last page. It was G.K. Chesterton who said that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” It is not the shock value that brings grown-up readers back to the books that spoke to them again and again, but rather, the simple truth that the dragons they are now facing in their adult lives are not invincible. In his book The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart introduces his readers to such dragons, whose fire may not be an experience exclusive to children after all. Through the frame of a thrilling undercover mission to a secret institute, he addresses subjects such as loneliness, fear of abandonment, and the pressure to fit into society, all while directing his protagonists on their own internal journeys.
Trenton Lee Stewart introduces his four protagonists as they participate in a series of tests. Reynie, an introverted boy with a quick mind, is perceptive and compassionate. His observational skills allow him to see details and patterns that others would normally overlook. This sometimes causes him to miss the forest for the trees. Sticky, as a contrast, is a storehouse of information. He is highly knowledgeable, but lacks the calm and reasonable temperament necessary in a crisis. Katie, who is an active thinker and fast on her feet, uses her environment and her experience to her advantage. Unfortunately, her hands-on method translates, on occasion, into impulsivity. And Constance, the youngest member of the group, is grounded in her own judgment and her views. She has an iron will that seems at first to be more of a disadvantage than an asset to their team. As the four characters navigate the tests they encounter in the first arc of the story, they are shown to have very different approaches to solving problems, and on a larger scale, to life. It is their differences that initially keep them at a distance from each other, but it is those same differences that eventually bring them together, and allow for them to function as a team.
Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance display different kinds of intelligence. As they figure out how to work together to accomplish the task they have been sent to do, Reynie’s problem solving skills, Sticky’s cleverness, Kate’s quick thinking, and Constance’s sense of conviction start to make the cogs turn as a single unit. Stewart uses the four characters as foils for each other when they run into conflict. Sticky’s spring of information and Kate’s practical knowledge, for example, come in just as handy as Reynie’s emotional intelligence and Constance’s judgment of character. This is what makes them succeed in their task: their decision to put aside minor quibbles and disagreements, and work together. As seen in the first few stages of their mission, they do not function well when they are at odds with each other. Only by combining their unique skills and perspectives do they truly make a difference in the end.
It is important to note that the four children’s personal skills and abilities are all treated as equally valuable by Mr. Benedict, who is their mentor figure and the mastermind behind the operation. Though the three older children express some doubt about Constance, due to her irritable disposition and her tendency to say what comes to her mind without using any filter, Mr. Benedict sees her stubbornness as a strength, rather than a weakness. In fact, while Constance’s stubbornness is often portrayed as a negative trait, it becomes of utmost importance at the climax of the novel. When all else seems to have failed, it is Constance’s downright refusal to give up that gives the Mysterious Benedict Society the chance to outwit their enemy, Mr. Curtain. By embracing their differences, and learning to trust one another, the four protagonists first become good friends, then a well-functioning team built on mutual respect.
This emphasis on friendship is not an optimistic solve-all that automatically causes the characters to magically put aside everything they might disagree on, however. The tests Mr. Benedict puts the children through highlight both their strengths and weaknesses, and as they journey onwards, each new ‘test’ reveals every character’s individual flaws, as well as their fears and desires. Despite their different upbringings, those fears and desires can be boiled down to one simple truth: they all long for human connection. Reynie has never been able to fit in with the other children in his orphanage. Sticky spent most of his childhood trying to please his parents. Kate grew up thinking that she had been abandoned by her father. And Constance’s origins are left shrouded in mystery, but her lack of communicative skills and understanding of social behaviour points towards a lack of experience. The members of the Mysterious Benedict Society are deeply and profoundly lonely, though some would never admit it, and it is through their shared journey that they find a place to belong. As Mr. Benedict says to Reynie, “family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be family” (Stewart 257).
The four characters’ shared desire to be loved and to belong is one of the many facets of Trenton Lee Stewart’s analysis of values. As they become closer to each other, and to Mr. Benedict, their priorities and goals line up accordingly. The Mysterious Benedict Society takes a closer look at what people place their worth in, and where they might find validation. For instance, Kate initially takes pride in her independence and her ability to tackle tricky situations, and Sticky is equally reliant on his own intelligence. When they become part of a team, they have to learn to acknowledge their own faults and work alongside people who don’t necessarily share the same worldview. It is their willingness to adapt to other people that makes this work. In Mr. Curtain’s case, his inability to adapt is what causes his downfall. He fails to execute his plan in the end because the only person he trusts is himself. He depends on the Executives who are working closely with him to a certain extent, as he considers himself more capable than them, due to their age. His acute awareness of his abilities and his lack of a healthy community that can support, guide, and occasionally temper him feeds into his arrogance and condescending manner. As a result, Mr. Curtain ends up overestimating himself and underestimating Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, which causes his whole plan to collapse.
It is not conformity and the removal of individuality, which Mr. Curtain forces upon the students at his institute, that makes a person stronger, better, and wiser. It is their unique gifts and traits, and the way they use them. One major theme Stewart weaves throughout his story is how individuality should be retained and encouraged rather than stamped out. Like Meg Murry so aptly put it in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time—another children’s book that is often underestimated, due to the age bracket its publishers originally nudged it toward—“Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” (L’Engle 177). Mr. Curtain wants his students to be like each other, uniform in their views, and obedient to his commands. Mr. Benedict, on the other hand, wants the Mysterious Benedict Society to grow together in their own unique ways and directions. While Mr. Curtain squashes those unique gifts and traits, Mr. Benedict nurtures them. Isolation, such as in Mr. Curtain’s case, distorts and destroys—as does complete erasure, as shown through the other children at the Institute. Once they enter the care of Mr. Benedict and his friends, the four protagonists are cared for and challenged by their mentors and peers, giving them the chance to find a strong foundation on which to build their developing senses of identity.
The importance of understanding the people around us, the depths of our truest desires, and the celebration of friendship, identity, and family forms only one layer of Trenton Lee Stewart’s story. The Mysterious Benedict Society holds even more within its pages. The messages Trenton Lee Stewart has woven into the narrative are not condescending or contrived, but rather, offers a nuanced view of good and evil, and the choices we must make when faced with our own dragons. Reynie comes to recognize that what he really wanted all along was a caring family. Sticky stops running away from the fear and sadness he has grown up in. Kate confronts her past, and her feelings concerning her father. And Constance makes a selfless decision that saves everyone’s lives, and, as a result, the world. Stewart does not shy away from addressing real problems and real fears that children experience. He does not create a make-believe utopian heaven, but rather, through his characters, shows the reader that there is hope and happiness to be found even when one is surrounded by fear and doubt. The world outside of the world he has created is not a perfect one, and he knows his reader is well aware of this. He takes dragons that people face on a daily basis—loneliness, grief, resentment, and their root, which is the pain caused by the desire to be loved—and shows how his characters defeat those dragons in their own journeys.
I find it fascinating to watch Stewart develop the concept of identity within his story. One of the greatest antagonists the Mysterious Benedict Society has to battle is the idea of conformity. If they become what other people want them to become, they are told again and again, they would be accepted. Seen. Loved. Yet whenever this choice is offered—at the orphanage, in their own houses, at the institute—the children always refuse it. They are seen as strange, even abnormal, but as they grow, they realize that these skills and interests they have are what makes them who they are. The formation of the Society is what gives them the validation and love they have been searching for—and, eventually, is what creates a bridge that connects them to the people they have been estranged from. At the very end of the book, Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance have found what they have been looking for: friends, family, and a place to belong. And this is a shining moment I have constantly returned to. Even at the age of eleven, I was aware of my dragons, even if I had not yet known their proper names. And being told that I had a chance against them was something I sorely needed. This is, perhaps, one of the things that draws me back to Trenton Lee Stewart’s books, almost a decade after I first read them. Even now, this is something I still need to hear: that there is a place that I will be accepted, seen, and loved. That the dragons—loneliness, grief, resentment, and the pain caused by the desire to be loved—are not invincible, after all.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, like Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time, does not sugarcoat the harsh realities of the world. It does not try to conceal the realities of death, or loss, or war between a good and an evil. Stewart pays attention to the smaller, but equally prevalent problems everyone, regardless of age, struggles with: communication with parents, for instance, or the anxiety of making new friends, or the fear of disappointing or failing the people you love. But he does not present a bleak or pessimistic view on the state of the world. Instead, he offers an alternative perspective, which is one that authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Andrew Peterson, and Jessica Townsend also share in their respective stories: that there is always hope, and always a way to keep going, no matter how dark the road before you may grow. So maybe good children’s books, as C.S. Lewis has proven, are the ones that resonate with you no matter how old you are. Maybe, as G.K. Chesterton said, we need to be reminded in every stage of life that dragons can be defeated, in both fairy tales and in real life. Maybe the simplest truths are the most beautiful, and maybe those truths are the ones that stay with us the longest. And maybe children’s literature, as strange and magical as it is, has a thing or two to teach adults, too.
Jaslyn has many dreams (some of which include reading every single book on her TBR list, baking cookies that don’t taste like rocks, keeping a plant alive for more than two weeks, etc. etc.) but the closest to her heart is her dream of becoming an author. She is from Thailand and Taiwan, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, you’ll probably find her reading to her little sister, watching animated movies with her brother, scribbling frantically in her notebook, or chugging tea like her life depends on it. You can also find her in her little corner of the world: https://herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
“A Quote by C.S. Lewis.” Goodreads, Goodreads,www.goodreads.com/quotes/6493-a-children-s-story-that-can-only-be-enjoyed-by-children.
“A Quote by G.K. Chesterton.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/341193-fairy-tales-do-not-tell-children-the-dragons-exist-children.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Square Fish, 2007.
Popova, Maria. “J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy Tales, Language, the Psychology of Fantasy, and Why There’s No Such Thing as Writing ‘For Children.’” Brain Pickings, 27 Oct. 2016, www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/05/j-r-r-tolkien-on-fairy-stories/.
Popova, Maria. “C.S. Lewis on the Three Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing.” Brain Pickings, 29 Nov. 2016, www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/18/c-s-lewis-writing-for-children/.
Stewart, Trenton Lee., and Carson Ellis. The Mysterious Benedict Society. Little, Brown, 2008.