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Children in danger

And also in charge, in Trenton Lee Stewart's books.


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STEWART, BEING MYSTERIOUS: The author is working on another "Benedict Society" book.
  • STEWART, BEING MYSTERIOUS: The author is working on another "Benedict Society" book.

Author Trenton Lee Stewart would himself make a good character in a children's book. As a boy, he was always daydreaming of adventure, writing stories in his head for days. Interrupted by a question from his parents, he'd answer, "Shhh. I'm thinking."

As a third-grader — when he could hold a pencil easier, he said — he started writing things down. Funny poems.

He'd wander his Hot Springs neighborhood with his best friend — his neighbor's dog — thinking up exciting tales and yearning for adventure.

Then the boy grew up and his novels hit the New York Times Best Seller list.

Making a best-seller list is not saving the world from evil men with designs on running the world, as Stewart's talented heroes do in "The Mysterious Benedict Society" series and "The Secret Keepers." But he can come up with a good story, a little science fiction that tilts toward the possible and characters kids can recognize. (And not only would he make a good character, he sort of is one, the boy in "The Secret Keepers.")

Stewart, 48, who lives in Little Rock and is the winner of the Arkansas Times' Best of Arkansas author category this year, did not intend to become a best-selling writer of children's books. His first novel, "Flood Summer," was for adults. It took three years to write and made him feel disconnected from the literary world, one in which he'd previously published short stories and enjoyed the sort of positive feedback that told him to keep at it. Working for a stretch without publishing was "kind of lonely," he said, and he feared the next book he'd planned on writing would just extend the isolation as he waited for publication, an audience.

But the plot changed a bit when Stewart, who was making up stories every night for his 2-year-old son, Elliott, "started thinking about story-telling for kids." It occurred to him that he could write a novel for Elliott when he got old enough to read. So he did, while waiting word on whether "Flood Summer" would be published. (It was, by Southern Methodist University Press; Arkansas artist Warren Criswell designed the book cover.)

Stewart's mental composition is "often just scenes and scenarios. I'm just constantly daydreaming, which makes me feel not productive, but I've found a way to channel it." His "boyish tendency" (his words) to ponder puzzles, mystery and tricky situations — like mazes — fed his thinking for the first book. Thus the "Mysterious Benedict Society," which puts the kids in a maze in the first 50 pages and requires them to figure out how to cross it, was created. In it, four children — the brainy orphan Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington with the photographic memory, kick-ass Kate and cranky Constance Contraire — defeat the vile and wryly named villain Ledopthra Curtain, who has been using mental telepathy to take over the world.

The publication of "The Mysterious Benedict Society" (followed by "The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey," "The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma" and the prequel "The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict") was life-changing, Stewart said. Rather than become an academic, which he thought he might, he became a writer.

Did it make him rich? "Briefly," he said, laughing over lunch at Nexus Coffee.

In writing for kids, Stewart said, "You want the kids doing the problem-solving." That means you've got to get the adults out of the way. An orphan hero, or one with only one parent who's working three jobs and never home — that's the stuff of inspiration.

So the Benedictines have sad back-stories and end up in a scary school where they must fight being brainwashed. But Stewart's "Secret Keepers" finds his hero, Reuben, in an even drearier setting — in the poor Lower Downs neighborhood of New Umbra, a place of abandoned and decrepit buildings, with a mother barely making ends meet selling fish and the town lorded over by mafia-ish quartets who face the cardinal directions to keep a mean eye on things. Stewart said the hero, a loner who spends his days hiding from people, is "in some ways modeled after my own childhood. ... There's a weird sort of nostalgia that I experience for the melancholy I felt then," his only adventures being those that a Hot Springs neighborhood offered, his best friend a dog. But even Stewart found the novel's opening a little bleak, and decided to inject another part of his childhood — a funny mother whose exchanges with her son lighten things up.

Reuben's challenge is to part with the thing he loves most — a watch that allows him to become invisible — and if that reminds you of the One Ring that almost does in Bilbo Baggins, you're not alone. "I wasn't setting out to rewrite 'The Hobbit,' " Stewart said, but the watch's power of corruption did keep "The Hobbit" on his mind. Those familiar with "The Hobbit" will find what Stewart calls "Easter eggs," references to J.R.R. Tolkien's book dropped throughout the pages of the "Secret Keepers," including the name of the villain and his alter ego.

The sci-fi elements of his books — the "Whisperer" machine that invades minds, the watch that makes its owner invisible — are meant to be just on the verge of the plausible to young readers. "I'm not convinced myself why it is true that our brain waves are limited to our skulls," Stewart said.

Stewart will get a chance to once more challenge his four Benedict Society members. He was beginning to miss Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance since the publication of the first book in 2007, and now has a contract for another Benedict book. Stewart wants them to have a few years of happy childhood "after all these dangerous adventures," so a bit of time will have passed for them since the last book. "We can see them in a new stage in their life."

Stewart's own kids are teenagers now, but he still enjoys reading with his youngest, Fletcher. They just finished Adam Gidwitz's "The Inquisitor's Tale." Like Stewart's books, it's a tale of children. They face danger. They're kidnapped. They must defeat a farting dragon. And, as creative thinkers usually are, they're accompanied by a dog.


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