Author Trenton Lee Stewart. (Little, Brown Books )
The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
Trenton Lee Stewart
Little, Brown: 470 pp., $17.99, ages 8 and up
Nicholas Benedict is best known to readers as a kindly father figure in Trenton Lee Stewart's bestselling "Mysterious Benedict Society" series. In the author's new prequel, fans finally get the back story on the narcoleptic genius, long before he placed the newspaper ad that sought four gifted orphans to help him save the world.
Set decades earlier in the same rural locale, the books' namesake is just 9 years old in "The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict." And, as the title hints, it isn't only his education but Nicholas himself who is something of an oddity. Small in physical stature but intellectually gifted, he has an "unfortunate" nose that is long and lumpy and a medical condition that prompts "unpredictable sleeping episodes" that drop "him from consciousness like a trapdoor into a black dungeon" at the least opportune of times.
It's a troubling combination for an unintentionally troublemaking but otherwise endearing boy who's been kicked out of orphanage after orphanage and is headed to yet another one as the book opens. What has long made him a nuisance to less intelligent adults and target practice for bullies also makes him a curiosity for a slightly older boy who befriends him at his new home — the ominously named Rothschild's End. The orphanage is housed in a two-story mansion built from drab gray stone that hints at the conditions inside. On the brink of closure for lack of funds, its director uses candles rather than electric lights to save money.
Rothschild's End was bequeathed by a wealthy, childless couple. According to local legend, an enormous fortune is hidden somewhere on the property. "Extraordinary" is an elaborate treasure hunt that has Nicholas racing to find it before the orphanage director, who is frequently seen wandering the mansion, tapping the walls.
Readers of the "Mysterious Benedict Society" will find similarly clever conundrums in "Extraordinary," which Nicholas and the children who befriend him puzzle out in the most inventive ways. When Nicholas needs to duplicate a key, he molds one from melted candle wax. When he's unable to read the fine print in a ledger, he uses a glass of water as a magnifier. Most of the children's adventures take place at night, where itinerant bullies and the looming threat of Nicholas' narcolepsy add suspense to Stewart's unrushed but taut narrative.
"Extraordinary" revolves around many of the same themes, even character types, as Stewart's earlier books, including orphans, friendship and the sorts of surrogate families that form as a result. Oddly, Stewart has chosen to give Nicholas a photographic memory, similar to Sticky in the "Mysterious" books.
For fans of the earlier books, these similarities are likely to be a welcome through line for a prequel that is well crafted and elegantly written, yet playful.
In a style reminiscent of Lemony Snicket's adventurous "A Series of Unfortunate Events," Stewart delights in the archaic and in wordsmithing, introducing terms such as "vouchsafe," "taciturn" and other terms that may prompt readers to keep a dictionary at the ready as they cheer Nicholas and his friends toward a better future.