The ability of children’s literature to handle the “hard topics” is often underestimated.  Sometimes authors are criticised for pandering to children; they are accused of telling kids that the world is a good place where the bad guy always loses.  Embarrassingly my return to YA fiction in my adulthood was for this very reason.  Mostly it has been about nostalgic memories and a yearning for simpler stories.  As I creep farther and farther in adult society, children’s stories address a need for clear cut lines and black and white outcomes. 

If only it were that simple.  That I am misremembering is becoming increasingly clear.  Books like Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, and Tuck Everlasting are simple?  Clearly not.  They delve deeply into the basic questions of life: death, love, family and loss.  I’m finding that most YA fiction written today follows the example of these classics.  In fact these days authors more often come under heavy fire for treating kids as they should – as intelligent beings able to deal with complex issues.

The Mysterious Benedict Society embodies the personalities of each of the main characters.  It is bold and proactive, like Kate Wetherall.  It is shrewd and intuitive like Reyne Muldoon.  It is anxious and thoughtful like George “Sticky” Washington.  It is contrary and obstinate like Constance Contraire.  Together the four children form the Mysterious Benedict Society and under the directive of Mr. Benedict, they begin a secret mission. They are trying to discover a plot hatched by Ledtroptha Curtain, headmaster of the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (you guessed it, it’s a front).

The Society soon discovers they are in grave danger, along with everyone else.  Mr. Curtain, a noted brain scientist, has discovered way to transmit messages directly into people’ s minds.  His messages are filled with fear, which only he and his equipment can take away (because of course they put it there in the first place).   He is plotting to take control after he is proclaimed the country’s savior.

As the mission leads them down more and more complex paths, the kids struggle with some serious issues.  They were chosen by Mr. Benedict for their moral fortitude and love of truth.  But once trapped within the Institute the rules are different.  Should they cheat on their exams in order to gain more information for their mission?  Is spying in itself wrong?  Suddenly the bad guys aren’t look so bad.  And the reflections in the mirror aren’t looking so good.  These questions linger on both the kids’ consciences and in this reader’s mind. 

I have no doubt a happy ending is nigh; this is a kid’s book after all. But also I highly suspect that all will not be resolved.  The lines in the sand are constantly being washed away with the tide.  The bad guy may not win, but like in real life, he may not lose either.

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