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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.
Although his teachers encouraged his writing, Stewart never focused on any particular vocation.
“Any time I was given the freedom to fantasize,” he said, “I thought I might like to be an inventor ? although I was not mechanically inclined. I was no good at inventing things ... except stories.”
Stewart studied fiction writing at Hendrix College with poet and novelist Jack Butler, whose novel “Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
After graduation, he married Sarah Beth Estes, whom he'd met on the first day of Hendrix orientation, and the couple moved to Little Rock to apply for graduate programs.
“At that time, I had a feeling that I'd get a Ph.D. and be a professor,” Stewart said. “I had an equally strong feeling that I'd be a very successful writer by the age of 24.”
He ended up attending the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa ? arguably the most important creative writing M.F.A. program in the country ? and picked up ideas about what constitutes good prose by paying attention to his peers. After finishing the two-year program, he stayed in Iowa City while Estes completed her Ph.D. During that time, Stewart looked for jobs where he could read and write on company time “and still be considered a valuable employee.”
The best stint of employment was working as a rural video deliveryman.
“I drove around Iowa to small-town convenience stores and gas stations to update video displays,” he explained. “I saw gold when the manager offered me that job; I knew that 60 percent of the job would be on the road and I could listen to books on tape. I remember being parked in my car on the University of Iowa campus and hearing the end of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.' I remember being in north Iowa during certain scenes in ‘Anna Karenina.' ”
Eventually, Stewart started working for libraries. He was on his lunch break from a library job in Cincinnati, where Estes worked as a professor, when he started thinking about a chess problem: “a sequence of moves that would result in a curious position … the illusion of something that had happened that didn't look like it could possibly have happened.”
This idea led to other ideas about riddles, and eventually Stewart's “messy outline” of ideas became a draft of “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
The prospect of writing for children and young adults had never been more than a “think blip” for Stewart. His adult novel “Flood Summer” was published by SMU Press in 2005, and his short stories had been featured in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah and other literary publications. “Flood Summer” and some of Stewart's short stories take place in Arkansas.
With “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” Stewart decided to try something new.
“I'd been writing in the cold for a long time, working on big projects without feedback from the world beyond. I wanted to do something different, and I thought this might be a fun project to do ? something before I got lost into a big project for adults. I absolutely didn't expect I'd spend the next five years solely working on writing for young readers.”
After Stewart sold “The Mysterious Benedict Society” to Little, Brown, in 2006, he and his family moved back to Little Rock, where Estes now works as the coordinator of the Gender Studies program at UALR. The couple has two sons: Elliot, 8, and Fletcher, 4. Now a full-time writer, Stewart enjoys reading and hanging out with his kids. He introduced the second book of the series to Elliot while walking to kindergarten at Fulbright Elementary. Elliot is “very pleased” that the first book is dedicated to him. The second book is dedicated to Fletcher.
In the wake of the success of “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” Stewart is outlining another book for young adults. In the future, he intends to return to writing for adults.
As a preview for “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma,” Stewart explained that the book begins with “the kids and their families under house arrest with Mr. Benedict.” He wouldn't give more plot details other than to say that “the same old villains are back with the same interests. As you might expect, things fall apart and the kids are in the middle of a chaotic race.”
In other interviews, Stewart has called this book the last of “The Mysterious Benedict Society” series. “My editor has pleaded with me not to say that anymore,” he said. “I think it's the last book.”