Character Relatability and the Mysterious Benedict Society Trilogy

Character Relatability and the Mysterious Benedict Society Trilogy

All my friends became my friends because we relate to each other on some level: same taste in video games, like opera, like writing, etc. This relatability is also what makes my favorite books my favorites, and in high school, those books were The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy.

As always, this is not a review. There may be spoilers for those who haven’t read the story. If you would like to know why I take this stance, please see this post. Otherwise, away we go.

What prompted me to reread the MBS trilogy was a lunch with my favorite teacher from my high school. Before getting too deep into the analysis, I’d like to talk about my high school.

The school immersed students gifted in math and science in a rigorous two-year academic program. The students would eat in the great hall, study in the library, and live in the dorms during the school year, and eat, study, and live STEM. While I was always interested in writing, I loved and being with other kids who loved learning too. The first place I ever felt at home was at that school because it was where I had friends my age who got me— who understood my joke about limiting reagents when cooking with the last two eggs, who liked discussing what we learned in class, and who broke the rules about staying up past lights-out to study (shout out to my roommate, who is now at Yale Medical School). They were the smart kids, and I was proud to be one of them.

Back to the Mysterious Benedict Society. The trilogy is ultimately a smart kid’s dream: an adventure to save the world, a test of your limits, and clever and odd minutiae of botany, zoology, geography, history, vocabulary, and other subjects. The story is a classic save-the-world adventure mystery about four gifted children. They called themselves the Mysterious Benedict Society after their elderly genius patron, Nicholas Benedict, who brought the children together with the hope that they would be able to solve the mystery of “The Emergency” and stop the looming disaster he senses in the future. Logic puzzles, clever language (one character is named S. Q. Pedalian), and trivia that turns out to be non-trivial in the story infused quirky flavors into an earnest story.

The books’ protagonists have four important qualities that are stated baldly in the first book:

“[. . .] What is it the four of you have in common? Can you tell me?”

“We all passed your boring tests,” said Constance.

“We’re all gifted,” said Kate.

“We’re all children,” said Sticky.

Mr. Benedict nodded at each response, then looked at Reynie, who said, “We’re alone.”

The last quality defines the characters from the outset and creates the link between the readers and the characters. Think about the audience of the books. Children, probably in middle school, who already like reading for fun. Kids who like to read for fun are usually also gifted. And this last guess is a stretch, but the kinds of kids who like to read for fun and who are gifted probably have a tougher time relating to other kids their age. I personally never felt like a child. When I was younger, it was easier to talk to adults than to other kids. Readers love these books because the stories combine what their audience likely loves and use characters who could easily be any of the readers. l felt like I knew the characters of the books  and could see each one in my classmates. My classmates felt the same; I think every girl on the second floor read my copies of MBS.

Beyond the concrete elements of the plot, the treatment of the children by the adults also creates deeper meaning to the audience. I hated being treated as a child. The most furious I remember being as a teen was when my mom suggested that I didn’t need to apply or go to OSSM because I wasn’t mature enough. My dad thought otherwise, luckily, and I applied and was accepted. When the children in the books were treated similarly, that was the closest I felt to them. For example, when Mr. Benedict plays chess with Reynie and they talk as equals.

As usual, Mr. Benedict had greeted him with great warmth, and the two of them sat down together on the floor. [. . .] As had happened so many times before, Mr. Benedict had discerned immediately that Reynie had something on his mind.

“Thought as I’ve previously remarked,” Mr. Benedict said, smiling, “this is not such a feat of deduction as it might seem, since you, my friend, always have something on your mind. Now tell me what it is.”

Reynie considered how to begin. It was all so complicated, and he could find no good starting point. Then he remembered what Mr. Benedict always seemed to intuit what he meant, whether or not Reynie had managed to express it properly. And so he said simply, “I see things differently now, and it’s. . . it’s bothering me, I suppose.”

[. . .]

“You mean to say,” said Mr. Benedict after reflecting a moment. “That you’re disturbed by the wickedness of which so many people seem to be capable. My brother, for example, but also his Executives, his henchmen, the other students at the Institute—”

“Everybody,” Reynie said.

[. . .]

Mr. Benedict settled back against his desk. “It’s natural that you feel as you do, Reynie. There is much more to the world than most children— indeed, most adults–ever see or know. And where most people see mirrors, you, my friend, see windows. By which I mean there is always something beyond the glass. You have seen it and will always see it now, though others may not. I would have spared you that vision at such a young age. But it’s been given you, and it will be up to you to decide whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”

It gratifying to be treated as an adult as a child. I appreciated having my opinions and dreams treated seriously, to have people stand beside me encouraging me, and giving me the tools to achieve my crazy goals.

However, The Mysterious Benedict Society falls into the problem that MG or YA books about gifted children tend to have, which is that the protagonists act like adults in smaller bodies. It’s not inaccurate to say that gifted children act like adults, but the leader of the group, Reynie Muldoon, is incredibly adult-like. He doesn’t make childish mistakes. Instead he makes the mistakes you would expect an adult to make. His interiority reveals how lonely he is, but he never falls victim to it or let it get in the way. He sometimes reaches out to Mr. Benedict for advice, but otherwise is the pillar of the team. The book never lets you forget that these kids are smart, outpacing the bad guys by miles by virtue of their smarts, love of truth, and decisiveness. But, I wish they were a little less great, and that they showed more of the bad traits smart kids tend to exhibit: know-it-all-ism, stubbornness, and insisting on being right. Two of the children display these traits, but it’s explained why they are this way, and you can’t fault them for it.

This whole article is hindsight. I read the books in early high school and wished that I had friends like the four protagonists in the book, that I had teachers who were smart and could pay more attention to me as an individual and not as another statistical point in the public school system, and that there was a place for me to test myself against the world. Then my wish came true.

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