One of the most dramatic moments of “The Mysterious Benedict Society” comes early in the book. Reynie Muldoon, the 11-year-old protagonist of the novel, is taking an exam that ? if he passes ? might allow him to leave his dreary life as an orphan and join a special team of children. He'd already remembered to bring exactly one No. 2 pencil to the testing site and answered in section two that he doesn't like television.
The final question asks: “Are you brave?”
“Just reading the words quickened Reynie's heart,” the novel tells us. “Was he brave? Bravery had never been required of him, so how could he tell? … Finally he gave up trying to decide and simply wrote, ‘I think so.' ”
It's this sort of humble, thoughtful confidence that defines Reynie and endears him to the reader. He is smarter than we are, but he is sweet, and “average-looking,” and he depends on his three best friends as he helps save the world from the evil Mr. Curtain, who is out to brainwash people with a device called “The Whisperer.” The four friends passed that first test and solved riddles to become acolytes of the kind Mr. Benedict, a genius with narcolepsy.
Besides Reynie, there is bald-headed George “Sticky” Washington, who remembers everything, but is nervous; Kate Wetherall, who is fearless and positive, and always carries a bucket strapped to her belt; and Constance Contraire, who is fiercely stubborn and cleverly makes up rhymes.
The creator of this kooky story is Trenton Lee Stewart, a Hot Springs native who has been known to unexpectedly pop into WordsWorth Books and introduce himself casually as a “children's book author.”
Indeed. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” has been on the New York Times children's bestseller list for over a year. The third book in the series, “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma,” is out on Tuesday, Oct. 6. The author's October book tour will take him to prestigious venues such as Symphony Space in New York City. In May, Stewart appeared on “The Today Show” as a pick on Al Roker's Book Club for Kids. Someday, we may see Reynie, Sticky, and the gang on the big screen; a couple of producers have optioned “The Mysterious Benedict Society” for a movie, and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (of “Rachel Getting Married” fame) is attached to the project ? although currently there is no certainty that the movie will get made.
Georgette Sims, the children's book buyer at WordsWorth, and Helen Plummer, the library and media specialist at North Little Rock's Oak Grove High, speak with bubbling-over enthusiasm when they talk about Stewart's work and describe what makes it stand out in a crowded field of children's books.
“There are a lot of books for that age group with similar themes,” said Sims, who has worked with Stewart to coordinate signings. “But what I really like about the story is the characters. He develops them so that you feel like you're involved. You know them; you know what they're thinking. They work together, and they build each other up. Their personalities are so clear.”
Plummer agrees. “Kids love the interactions among characters. There are not a lot of adults in the book, and young people are thinking and acting on their own.”
Stewart, 39, has called his path to literary fame “fairly straight ... with lots of steep hills.”
He grew up just a mile from Lake Hamilton. As a child, he spent hours making up stories in his head, or hanging out at the top of a silver maple tree in his front yard, pretending to be a secret agent and surprising customers who walked into his mother's hairdressing shop.