What do you read when you’re unwell? I mostly read literature featuring dragons and witches and OTT villains and guaranteed happy endings. When a virus laid me low recently, I read an assortment of books aimed at 11-year-olds, two of which were good enough to make me glad I’d been sick. Almost.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart: This one is an old-fashioned children-on-an-adventure narrative, and it’s smashing. Four children possessing extra-ordinary skills (note: not super-powers) save us all from becoming mindless sheep (or are they too late already?) Anyway. Rennie is clever and brave, Sticky is a bookish genius, Kate is strong and acrobatic, and Constance is contrary–a quality I haven’t appreciated as I ought till I read this book. The four must outwit a super-dastardly villain without further delay.
TMBS works as well as it does because the protagonists’ youth is critical to the plot–these children aren’t doing the CIA’s job, but theirs. And they have been chosen for their specific gifts, which makes the set-up a lot more convincing than, say, a Famous Five adventure where the characters rely mostly on Britishness and inquisitiveness to see them through. Also, I particularly liked that Stewart features many PoC characters without making a big deal of it. Sticky is brown-skinned, Rhonda Kazembe (a former child prodigy) is Zambian, and Rennie’s tutor Miss Perumal is from India, but you get the feeling that really, race does not matter in this universe; what’s important is the other race– to stop television turning us all into idiots. You can see why this book appeals to me…
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz: A well-written tale about a young girl’s involvement with Spiritualists in the early twentieth century. Maud, the least well-behaved child at the orphanage, would seem to have the least chances for adoption. But the charming Hyacinthe Hawthorne whisks her away from her miserable existence, plies her with ice-cream and Dickens novels and new clothes, and convinces her to join the family business–faking spiritual encounters. For Hyacinthe and her two sisters are con artists who have embarked on their most promising swindle yet–comforting a grieving mother with messages from her drowned daughter, and they need Maud to impersonate the dead girl. Maud must reconcile her desire to be loved by her adoptive family with her conscience, which proves a hardier organ than one might have initially suspected.
Many books of this ilk feature pedestrian prose that bows to King Plot, but Schlitz’s writing is never merely serviceable; she actively crafts her sentences to build up the atmosphere. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, there are many moments of genuine suspense and chills, mostly notably in young Maud’s terrible need to belong, and the consequent pressure to please all-powerful adult authority. The recommended reading age is Grade 4 to 8, but I’d place it at the highest end of the spectrum.