Author of the Month: Trenton Lee Stewart

By Susan L. Peterson

This month’s award-winning author, Trenton Lee Stewart, is definitely one to read and watch … on TV!

It was 2007 when Stewart’s life took an abrupt turn with the publication of “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” This young adult novel sold well over three million copies, remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over a year, won prestigious awards, and spawned subsequent books and a Disney+ TV series.

The story is about a group of four gifted orphans, each with a different talent, attitude and perspective. Under the direction of the enigmatic Mr. Benedict, the four go on a secret mission to save the world. Part of the appeal for the reader are the mental and physical problems, puzzles and riddles the characters need to solve in order to succeed. The book’s themes revolve around friendship, curiosity and teamwork.

Stewart’s success did not come quickly or easily, and its path took a quirky turn along the way. Ironically, he never thought he would be known for writing books for children.

With strong ties to Central Arkansas, Stewart was born and raised in Hot Springs and graduated from Lake Hamilton High School. He knew he wanted to be a novelist early on and majored in English at Hendrix (’92). He then continued his studies at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, earning his MFA in creative writing.

Stewart then took a series of odd jobs in Iowa and Ohio. The one caveat was that the job had to give him the freedom to continue to write and listen to audiobooks, so he served as a night clerk, an assistant librarian, and a video delivery man, to name a few. During these years, he applied for several academic positions, wrote and sold short stories and other pieces, and spent years revising one of his short stories into a novel, “Flood Summer.” He persevered for nearly a decade.

After finally finishing and submitting “Flood Summer,” Stewart sought a diversion. Within eight months, he wrote a story for young adults, “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” It was the kind of story that interested him when he was young–a big adventure with small heroes and mysterious elements.

Suddenly, in 2004, his world changed. Within the span of a few months, he was offered a position as visiting writer at University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio; “Flood Summer” was accepted for publication; and “The Mysterious Benedict Society” was purchased by the prestigious publishing company Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Stewart suspected from the start that “The Mysterious Benedict Society” was going to be big. The publisher asked for a two-book contract, and they were devoting significant time and resources to promote its release. It went on sale in 2007, and the rest is history.

His second book, “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey,” (2008) was easier for him in some ways, harder in others. Working with editors was a new challenge, but he learned lots of lessons from his first book.

And then there were more: “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma” was published in 2009. “The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict” (2012) tells the backstory of narcoleptic Mr. Benedict. “The Secret Keepers” (2016) is a standalone mystery and adventure novel. “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages” (2019) is the latest addition to the series.

Currently, Stewart is a few weeks away from completing his first draft of the latest in the series. Its working title is “The Starfish and the Scorpionfly.” And, yes, scorpionflies really do exist.

Shortly after publication, “The Mysterious Benedict Society” was optioned as a TV series. But it took about 5 years for it to be picked up, largely at the urging of the children of its producers. The first season aired on Disney+ in 2021-22. Stewart was hired as a consulting producer to give input on the scripts. It was a great Hollywood experience, getting first-class treatment touring the sets and meeting the actors. He believes the show was true to the spirit of the book and is proud that it was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards and won two during its first season. The second season was nominated for nine Emmys, and Stewart will definitely be watching when they are presented in January.    

And what about “Flood Summer,” his debut adult novel? Described as a Southern Gothic novel, although it received excellent critical and reader reviews, it seems to have been overshadowed by the success of the Mysterious Benedict Society series. Arkansans will enjoy the setting of “Flood Summer,” which takes place near Hot Springs during a terrible storm. As a  fan wrote in her review, “It seems to be grossly under-noticed.”

Stewart, who lives in Little Rock, continues to write and live the life of a successful author, presenting at conferences, giving book talks, and participating in online and in-person interviews. In 2019 his academic career came full circle when he served as Murphy Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Hendrix and taught a class entitled “Writing and Publishing Fiction.”

“Flood Summer” and the “Mysterious Benedict Society” books are available from online retailers or from local bookstores.