Middle Grade Mondays: Mysterious Benedict Society Defines Difference in Upper and Lower Middle Grade Fiction

The Mysterious Benedict Society (Mysterious Benedict Society, #1)The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I had some trouble with this book, but I don’t want to mislead possible readers. I think it’s a charming book for younger readers, just not my cup of tea. One concern is that it reads like a younger middle grade novel, yet it’s quite a long book at almost 500 pages and the world-domination plan might be too much for them to wrap their heads around.

I think the story could have been generously edited, primarily taking out superfluous explanations and numerous redundancies, and made a much tighter book. As it stands, I think the length of it might throw people off, expecting a more mature story.

One good thing about reading this, though, is that it helps me to further define the difference between upper and lower middle grade novels. I prefer upper middle grade, although I know many people enjoy the latter. (CLICK HERE for my blog post: Middle Grade Lit, What is it?)

In some lower middle grade novels believability is thrown out the window. Believable is different from realistic. Obviously, speculative fiction is by nature “unrealistic.” But if the imaginary world is set up in a detailed manner, the characters complex, and the rules around the world logical, then it comes across as believable. For example, Harry Potter is completely unrealistic, but there’s something about it that makes it believable. It’s the well-developed characters, their complex internal struggles, and the very detailed world. We get emotionally invested in it.

This is not to say that less complex characters can’t be colourful (in this book, for instance, Kate is an especially fun character). They just don’t have as much going on for them internally, and their character arcs (if present) are much simpler. As well, their behaviour (and the behaviour of the bad guys) comes across as cartoonish in this type of work. I thought the same way about Percy Jackson.

This is also not to say that if something is “unbelievable” that there aren’t readers who enjoy that. I just happen to prefer the believable and don’t like too many leaps in logic.

(minor spoilers ahead)

In this story, orphan and runaway children are collected on an island by an evil man who uses them for his plan of world-domination, which involves a machine he invented that can wipe people’s memories and reprogram them. The four orphan heroes are collected by the “good guys” in an extremely strange set of tests and sent on a mission to spy on the organization (and save the world). One of the children in the story ran to and away from the circus and can perform such stunts as climbing up an elevator shaft, making her way through ceiling ducts in seconds, and carrying another child on her back while running with a ladder (one reviewer called her McGyver with acrobat skills). Another boy has a photographic memory. Another is a 2 1/2 year old child who has the vocabulary of a 10 year old and has been surviving living on the streets. The main character has incredible skills of observation and deduction and talks like a nerdy adult.

Many of their problems are solved through coincidence. Good and bad are very distinct (i.e. not many shades of grey here, another aspect of lower middle grade lit). And the ending, all four children are adopted by friends and one conveniently finds her father during the adventure. For me personally, that type of ending is just a little too pat.

(Spoilers over, read on)

The puzzles / riddles are a unique aspect, and although most adults will see the answers right away, there were a few I had to think about.

This book has obviously found many fans as it is a best-seller. And I’m sure younger kids will have fun solving the riddles along with the child spies. If, however, like me, you generally prefer more “believable” (less “cartoonish”) stories, more internal struggle and complex characters, you may have the same response.

(someone may very well call me out on The Phantom Tollbooth, but that book is another story entirely. Yes, there are some leaps in logic, but it’s so masterfully done, the characters are brilliant, and the wordplay completely unique)


  1. Barbara Watson
    Oct 11, 2011

    I have never picked up this one as it hasn’t seemed like a story “for me” – if that makes sense. I like your points about lower and upper middle grade. There is a distinct difference. What is interesting to me about this book is this, I just started reading WILDWOOD with my kids (today!) and the illustrator of that also illustrated this one. The style is unique.

  2. Suma Subramaniam
    Oct 11, 2011

    Thanks for the review Danika. I like the character descriptions. Will look the book up.

  3. @Barbara – I try them all on for size, not only for teaching but for writing as well. I’m definitely learning about the variety in the middle grade spectrum and how to articulate the differences.

    The illustrator must have just done the cover as there weren’t illustrations in the book. Unless there’s more than one edition?

    I’m on a wait list for Wildwood right now from the library! Have been looking forward to that one.

  4. Joanne Fritz
    Oct 12, 2011

    Yes, I’ve read this book and the next one in the series. They can be fun, but I’d have to agree that judicious editing would have helped. Some of my customers are put off by the length. We sell a ton of these books, though, so obviously people like them. Have to admit, I had no desire to read on in the series.

    The Phantom Tollbooth, on the other hand, is one of my top ten all-time favorites. Brilliant, for sure.

  5. Pamela Thomson Torres
    Oct 13, 2011

    Interesting, I found myself feeling the same way. I tried hard to get into it but I couldn’t. Welcome to MMGM.

  6. @Joanne – yeah, I probably won’t pick up the next one either.

    Thanks, Pamela! I’m enjoying all the MGM reviews, only my list is growing too long.

  7. Kim Aippersbach
    Nov 9, 2011

    I quite liked these stories. I think what appeals to me is the relationships between the characters. I also like anything unconventional and illogical! I wonder if part of their popularity might come from the very clear sense of right and wrong, the lack of grey that you talk about. They’re very safe stories in that respect: the reader comes away with his/her worldview reinforced. (Being polite is good. Caring for your friends is good. Taking over people’s brains with brainwave transmitting machines is wrong. There’s something reassuring about that kind of simplicity!)

  8. @Kim – I think you are right in regard to them being safe stories with simple black and white messages. And that some people will really enjoy and be drawn to that and others wont. The grey areas that I generally appreciate, others might not.

    This is why I don’t dismiss these books. Thinking about it in these terms helps me appreciate that others appreciate the stories. 🙂


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