December 28, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first book of what is becoming a series of New York Times Bestsellers. It is a longish "young person's" novel about four extraordinary misfits who take on evil and challenge themselves in the process. It's a charming book in some ways, and Trenton Lee Stewart certainly knows how to work the conventions of children's chapter books (misfit find other misfits to fit in with, children solving problems no adult can, orphans finding some form of family etc) . That said, I was disappointed in the end. Even though The Mysterious Benedict Society does pretty much everything right, the results are pretty ho hum.

The real problem for me, is that while Stewart's story is technically good, it lacks soul, or more specifically, it lacks an understanding of a child's soul. This is an intangible quality that I don't think an author can learn. Take, for example, A Wrinkle in Time, a warhorse in children's literature. Madeleine L'Engle tells a very sophisticated story from the perspective of a cranky, misfit girl named Meg. Meg is the older sister of an extraordinary boy named Charles Wallace (who has more perspective at six than most people have at sixty). L'Engle's Meg never sounds like an adult's idea of a cranky, misfit girl, just as Charles Wallace never sounds like an adult's idea of a six year old savant. They sound like real people, not adult constructions. All of Stewart's extraordinary kids - from Reynie Muldoon, the moral compass and natural leader, to George "Sticky" Washington, the genius beset by nervous ticks - feel like an adult's "Very Clever" conception of very clever kids. There's a fug of grown-upness over the whole thing and it just doesn't work.

The other problem with the story, is that there's a huge bloody build-up to what should be a huge bloody show-down, but the final resolution happens off-screen, AND it's not even the kids who achieve it. An adult, the eponymous Mr. Benedict, mysteriously dismantles the Evil Machine of Doom (tm). This results in an Ok-so-I've-read-and-read-and-read-and-THAT's-the-resolution?!? feeling in the reader. Then we scoot through the denouement, and because of some serious authorial strong-arming, everyone ends up happy. Deux ex Machina is splashed all over this thing. It's as if Stewart got his characters right into the thick of the action, and didn't know what to do next - there's too much machination, and too little imagination to make the thing take off.

All in all, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a great idea, and there is a lot in it that works - obviously, people like it as it's selling like a Bestseller. Still, it missed the boat for me. There are a lot of children's books out there that work (anything by Roald Dahl, Coraline, and The Phantom Tollbooth to name a few), and they work because they are genuine things - stories that appeal to the instinctual fears and fascinations of children. It's not enough to be clever, you have to be genuine, and that's where The Mysterious Benedict Society, which is ever-so-clever failed.

December 3, 2009

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

I read and finished The Magician's Elephant on flight to Texas for Thanksgiving. It is a lovely little thing. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote the Newbury Award winning, The Tale of Despereux, has a wonderful way with magical realism in children's literature. The Magician's Elephant doesn't read as fantasy, but it does have a whimsical sense of the fabulous which makes you feel like your reading a story much older than it is.

The story primarily concerns a boy whose greatest wish is to know if the sister he lost as an infant is still alive. A fortune-teller reveals that she is, and that if the boy wishes to find her, he must "follow the elephant." Being that the boy lives in a fictional northern-European city, he does not hold out much hope of ever seeing an elephant, let alone of finding one to follow. But then a magician inexplicably conjures an elephant in place of a bouquet, and the boy follows it to his heart.

While the boy, Peter Augustus Duchene, is very much the protagonist, DiCamillo takes full advantage of her omniscient narrator by also presenting the perspectives of the lost sister, the magician (who is imprisoned after the elephant falls on a noblewoman), a kind police inspector, and even the elephant herself. She does so fluidly - the changes in perspective feel very natural to the narrative - and in doing so, allows this simple story to take on a universality that it would otherwise lack.

The Magician's Elephant is not an overly dynamic book (it was made for candles and snowy evenings), but it is absolutely lovely, full of warm shadows and inevitable magic. My only complaint is that it's very satisfying ending arrived too soon.