trenton lee stewart

New Books: Recently Read Middle Grades Books

I’ve fallen a little behind on reviewing the books I’ve read lately, so I thought I’d combine them into a few posts to catch myself up.


The Secret Keepers
By Trenton Lee Stewart

The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society is back with another tale of new friends on a dangerous adventure. This time, this kids in question are Reuben, who makes a dangerous discovery on one of his explorations in the city, and Penny, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose family guards a secret from a hidden evil. Pursued by the henchmen of a criminal known as The Smoke, Reuben unravels a series of clues that lead him to Penny’s lighthouse and the secret power of his mysterious discovery. Reuben, Penny, and Penny’s older brother team up to take down The Smoke once and for all.

Like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Secret Keepers is a sometimes over-complicated adventure story featuring intelligent, resourceful, independent children as its heroes. The storyline isn’t always satisfying for me—especially when it veers into situations that feel ridiculous (The Smoke’s big booby trap of a house is one of these for me)—but the protagonists are terrific and interesting, and you want to know what happens next for them. (I wish the villains were similarly complex.) The book is at its best during its suspenseful sequences, which are clearly Stewart’s forte—he builds the kind of tension that keeps you flipping pages—and the development of the characters on the side of good, especially the children. There are places where the lengthy descriptions and explanations bog the book down a bit—I think a little editorial intervention might have trimmed some of the length without losing any of the story—but that’s a quibble. This is an adventure story and—mostly—a pretty delightful one with plenty of satisfying twists and turns, perilous exploits, and a well-earned conclusion. 

If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, this one is definitely worth checking out on your next library trip.

The Secret of Goldenrod
By Jane O'Reilly

I have always had such a soft spot for old-fashioned books about old houses (see also: The Four-Story Mistake, Magic Elizabeth, Gone-Away Lake), and The Secret of Goldenrod fits so beautifully into that niche, even though it’s clearly a modern book with contemporary sensibilities.

Trina and her dad spend their life moving from house to house, fixing places up for other families to call home before moving onto their next fixer-upper. Their new project is a lonely Victorian mansion on the outskirts of New Royal, Iowa, a house called Goldenrod with a tragic past. When Trina and her dad move into the house, strange things start happening, and Trina’s convinced the old house is haunted. When she discovers an antique doll called Augustine, she’s sure that Goldenrod is no ordinary house. But what does it want?

It is no surprise that I loved this book, which was warm and gentle and just a pleasure to read. Though it deals with complicated issues, including Trina’s long-absent mother and the loneliness of always being “the new kid,” in a realistic way, it’s never bleak or depressing. And though the story is about a haunted house, it’s not scary at all—there are a couple of creepy moments when Trina’s alone in the house early on—but it’s the opposite of a horror story. Trina’s relationship with her single parent dad is beautifully written—complicated and caring and completely authentic. Watching Trina slowly open up her defenses, making friends and becoming part of a community, while the old house is slowly restored to its old splendor, feels good—but it also feels right, like something Trina has earned and built for herself.

This is the kind of book I would have checked out of the library over and over again. I think it would make an absolutely lovely readaloud—in fact, it’s up next in my family’s readaloud queue.

Bespoke Book Lists: Books Like the Mysterious Benedict Society

One of my favorite people just finished racing through The Mysterious Benedict Society and itssequels and wanted to know what she should read next. So B, this one’s for you!

The Mysterious Benedict Society
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Chasing Vermeer
By Blue Balliett
The Wright 3
By Blue Balliett
The Calder Game
By Blue Balliett

If you enjoyed reading about smart kids banding together to solve a mystery, check out Blue Baillett’s books, starting with Chasing Vermeer and continuing with The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. Petra, Calder, and Tommy are intelligent, resourceful detectives, who use math and problem-solving skills to solve art mysteries. Oh, that makes these books sound kind of stodgy, but I promise, they're not!


Want more brain-teasing puzzles? Pick up The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. (You can follow up with The Potato Chip Puzzles and The Puzzler’s Mansion.) Winston loves puzzles, and you can solve them right along with him as you work your way through this book and follow Winston on a hunt for a hidden inheritance.


Have you read The Westing Game yet? Because, if not, you should go and read it right now. Turtle is as smart as Renny, as resourceful as Kate, and almost as stubborn as Constance as she tries to solve the clues to win millionaire Samuel Westing’s inheritance. It’s one of my favorite books.

OK, The Farwalker’s Quest (first in the FarwalkerTrilogy) is a fantasy book, so it’s not set in the real world like The Mysterious Benedict Society is. But friends Ariel and Zeke have to be just as brave and clever as the Society when they discover a magical artifact that forces them into an adventure that’s far away from their ordinary lives.

In another series that puts a fantasy twist on adventure, 12-year-old Stephanie Edgley, in the Skulduggery Pleasant series, teams up with the eponymous undead detective-slash-sorcerer to protect the world from the evil and manipulative Nefarian Serpine. Stephanie is everything you could want in a heroine: smart, sassy, brave, and often hilarious. I think you might love this series.


The Gollywhopper Games
By Jody Feldman
The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep
By Michael Wexler, John Hulme

Forgive it for borrowing so obviously from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I think you might enjoy The Gollywhopper Games, too. Gil Goodson is determined to win the Golly Toy & Game Company’s ultimate competition, and you’ll be right there with him, mastering trivia and solving puzzles, to get to the finish line. (The next two books in the series are fun, too.)

You might also enjoy Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, in which game-loving Kyle and his new friends must solve clues and secret puzzles to find their way out of the library belonging to the world’s most notorious game maker. This one might be a fun read-aloud.

If you don’t mind your books getting a bit silly, check out The Glitch in Sleep, the first book in the Seems series. The book’s premise — that our world is actually constructed somewhere else, from pre-packaged dreams for your sleep to a giant water tank that regulates precipitation — is kind of delightful, and Becker Drane, newly promoted Fixer, is about to face a Glitch in the Department of Sleep. You'll find lots of high-tech shenanigans and much silly fun to be had.