NPR's Backseat Book Club
10:32 am
Mon March 26, 2012

'Mysterious Benedict': Solve A Puzzle, Save The World

Originally published on Tue July 31, 2012 11:03 am

In The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, four exceptional children wind up going on the adventure of a lifetime after answering a rather strange ad. The ad appears in a newspaper in a fictional place called Stonetown. It reads, "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"

Dozens of children answer the ad and try to conquer a series of mind-boggling tests. But only four are able to pass. All are orphans, and each is a genius in his or her own way.

Author Trenton Lee Stewart explains how these children come together to form a sort of pint-size Mod Squad. The character Reynie is "a remarkable problem solver," says Stewart. "He's got a quick and facile intelligence. He has a tendency to see things that other people miss."

The character known as Sticky got his name because "everything he reads or observes sticks to his brain," says Stewart. "He has a photographic memory."

Kate is "athletic and acrobatic," according to Stewart. "She's handy with all sorts of tools. She's sort of a genius at solving physical problems."

And Constance "just appears to be a very small, slightly pudgy, angry poet who's always making rude poems about the people around her," says Stewart.

Mr. Benedict uses that ad and all those tests to find kids who have the right stuff, kids who could go undercover and save the world. Assuming different identities, they attend a school run by the evil Mr. Curtain. He's up to no good. The kids must use their skills to stop his plan for worldwide mind control.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is filled with twists and turns and constant conundrums. It's not just mysterious. It's also fantastic and heart thumping and just plain fun.

When asked which he thought up first — the curious characters or the world that they occupy — Stewart says the idea for the book began with images of puzzles and riddles.

"The first one was an image of a child — I didn't know yet if it was a boy or a girl — taking an incredibly difficult test that was more than it appeared to be," the author says. "I knew there was a secret to the test. So once I started asking who these kids are, why they're taking these difficult tests, it sort of led to the notion that they were being recruited for a difficult mission that only children could accomplish."

Early in The Mysterious Benedict Society, the children are led into an empty room. Above a door on the opposite wall, there's a large sign that says, "Cross the room without setting foot on a blue or black square."

Describing the challenge before them, Stewart says, "It appears that it would be impossible to cross the room without stepping on blue or black, since the yellow parts are so widely scattered that it would be difficult to jump from one to the other. That's a riddle that the kids all solve in a different way."

Stewart loved books growing up and says he always wanted to be involved in the big adventures he found in books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Watership Down.

"I was always interested in the possibility maybe of finding my way into a big adventure," he says. "I wanted to go to Sesame Street! I remember distinctly running through my neighborhood, thinking I knew how to get to Sesame Street, and then finally finding myself among some scrub trees and realizing I don't know where to go from here. I had to just mope back home."

To communicate with their mentor, the kids in The Mysterious Benedict Society have to learn Morse code. In Morse code, words are written through dashes and dots. Stewart says some young readers send him letters written in this code.

"I didn't know it when I started out to write the book," Stewart admits. "I just thought that it seemed a good fit for the characters' mission. But I do feel compelled to solve them, though, because if a 13-year-old decided to write me a letter in Morse code saying, 'Help! I'm being held hostage by aliens,' I would feel like I don't want to leave this young reader abandoned."

Mary Polly Chino, a Backseat Book Clubber from Stewart's hometown of Little Rock, Ark., wanted to know if Stewart came up with all the puzzles and riddles himself.

Stewart did in fact invent these puzzles and riddles himself, taking inspiration from a chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, called "Riddles in the Dark." In this episode, Bilbo Baggins has to solve life-or-death riddles posed to him by Gollum.

"I wanted the whole book to be just like that chapter," says Stewart. "I think when I started to write The Mysterious Benedict Society that I had that kind of thing in mind — the notion of having to be able to solve puzzles and riddles because enormous stakes rode upon your ability to do that."

The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first book in a three-part series. Backseat Book Club listeners can be the first to read an excerpt from the fourth book, a prequel to the series called The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. It can be found here.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's time now for this month's BackSeat Book Club. Young listeners read a book and ask the author questions. Our March book is "The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Trenton Lee Stewart.

Mr. Benedict is a benevolent father figure who assembles a team of four kids to carry out a secret mission. They wind up going on the adventure of a lifetime after answering a strange newspaper ad.

Our colleague, Michele Norris, has the story.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: That ad appeared in a newspaper in a fictional place called Stonetown and this is what it said. Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities? Dozens of children answered the ad and tried to conquer a series of mind-boggling tests, but only four are able to pass. All are orphans and each is a genius in his or her own way.

Author Trenton Lee Stewart explains how they come together and form a sort of pint-sized Mod Squad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: Reynie.

TRENTON LEE STEWART: Reynie Muldoon is a remarkable problem solver. He's got a quick and facile intelligence and he has a tendency to see things that other people miss.

NORRIS: Sticky.

STEWART: Sticky Washington, so-called Sticky because everything he reads or observes sticks to his brain. He has a photographic memory.

NORRIS: Kate.

STEWART: Athletic and acrobatic, she's handy with all sorts of tools. She's sort of a genius at solving physical problems.

NORRIS: And Constance.

STEWART: She just appears to be a very small, slightly pudgy, angry poet who's always making rude poems about people around her.

NORRIS: Mr. Benedict uses all those tests to find kids who have the right stuff. They need to go undercover and save the world. Assuming different identities, they attend a school that's run by the evil Mr. Curtain. He's up to no good. The kids must use their skills to stop his plan for worldwide mind control.

"The Mysterious Benedict Society" is filled with twists and turns and constant conundrums. It's not just mysterious, it's also fantastic and heart-thumping and just plain fun.

I asked Trenton Lee Stewart which came first, the curious characters or this world that they occupy?

STEWART: The ideas really started with images that occurred to me in a fairly short stretch of time when I was between other writing projects of puzzles or riddles. The first one was an image of a child - I didn't know yet if it was a boy or a girl - taking an incredibly difficult test that was more than it appeared to be. I knew there was a secret to the test. So, once I started asking who these kids are, why are they taking these difficult tests, it sort of led to the notion that they were being recruited for a difficult mission that only children could accomplish.

NORRIS: Now, there are tests of some kind or another throughout this book. Not all of them are pen and paper tests, but these children are tested constantly. They're mentalist tested their smarts, their physical strength, their ability to find their way out of sort of a bad situation.

For people who haven't had a chance to dive into this book yet, give a great example.

STEWART: So, there's a place in the book early on where the children are led into a room one at a time. And in this empty room, on the opposite wall above another door, there's a large sign that says: Cross the room without setting foot on a blue or black square. And when they look down on the floor, they see that they are standing in a red circle and, otherwise, the floor resembles a giant checkerboard with alternating rectangles of blue, black and yellow. And there's far more blue and black than there is yellow, so that it appears that it would be impossible to cross the room without stepping on blue or black since the yellow parts are so widely scattered that it would be difficult to jump from one to the other. That's a riddle that the kids all solved in a different way.

NORRIS: Sticky crawls across, never putting his foot down. Kate jerry rigs her way in an acrobatic feat. Constance, well, she just plops down and refuses to participate. And Reynie?

STEWART: What he notices that no one else notices is that, although the sign says, cross the room without setting foot on a blue or black square, the pattern on the floor is actually composed of rectangles, not squares, per se. And so, he realizes that the sign is meant to mislead you into thinking that the rectangles are squares.

So, it's an example of misdirection, which happens all the time in riddles where something is stated to you, which leads you to suppose something which is not necessarily true.

NORRIS: We count on NPR's BackSeat Book Club readers to lead the conversation. And first up, a query from Trenton Lee Stewart's hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas.

MARY POLLY CHINO: My name is Mary Polly Chino. I'm in seventh grade and my question is, did you come up with all the riddles and puzzles yourself?

STEWART: Yes. Part of the inspiration for writing this kind of book was a chapter in "The Hobbit" called Riddles in the Dark in which Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, is in this life or death riddle puzzle contest with Gollum. And I wanted the whole book to be just like that chapter. And I think when I started to write "The Mysterious Benedict Society" that I had that chapter in mind, that kind of thing in mind, the notion of having to be able to solve puzzles and riddles because enormous stakes rode upon your ability to do that.

So, I did actually write all the puzzles, created all the puzzles and riddles in the book. A lot of them were already in my brain before I started out to write the book. But then more were called for, and so I really had to sit down and think about what makes a riddle a successful riddle so that I could create new ones as the narrative demanded.

NORRIS: Were you yourself a gifted child looking for special opportunity?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEWART: I guess I was. I was a smart kid and I loved books, and I wanted to be involved in these big adventures that kids go on and "The Narnia Chronicles," for instance, or that the hobbit goes on or that the rabbits go on in "Watership Down." I was always interested in the possibility, maybe, of finding my way into a big adventure.

I wanted to go to Sesame Street. And I remember distinctly running through my neighborhood, thinking I knew how to get to Sesame Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEWART: You know, and then finally finding myself amongst some scrub trees and realizing, I don't know where to go from here. I had to just, you know, mope back home.

NORRIS: Elijah Rasool(ph) lives in Ann Arbor. He's eight years old and he has a simple question. Do you know Morse code?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEWART: I am much better at it now than I used to be. You might not be surprised to learn that I receive a number of letters from young readers in Morse code. So, I know a little, but I didn't know it when I started out to write the book. I just thought that it seemed a good fit for the characters' mission.

I do feel compelled to solve them, though, because if a 13-year-old decided to write me a letter in Morse code saying, you know, help. I'm being held hostage by aliens, I would feel like I don't want to leave this young reader abandoned.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Well, Elijah Rasool says you're an awesome writer.

STEWART: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Trenton Lee Stewart. His book is "The Mysterious Benedict Society," the first in a three-part series. You can be the first to read the fourth book, a prequel to the series called "The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict." You'll find it at our website. I'm Michele...

(SOUNDBITE OF MORSE CODE BEEPING)

NORRIS: NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: And in case your Morse code is a bit rusty, that was Michele Norris and here's what's coming up in the next few months. Our April book is Paul Fleischman's "Seed Folks" about the birth of an inner city gardener.

SIEGEL: And in June, we'll have a reader's choice, so we want you to cast your vote. You can do that and find out more about NPR's BackSeat Book Club at NPR.org/BackSeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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