Author Trent Stewart builds best-selling book series
By Mary Ruth Marotte '95
When you hang out with someone who has published
New York Times best-selling books, there is a little pressure to step up your
Trent [Trent Stewart '92] is that friend of mine. You know he is
smarter and more clever than you are, and you are good with that because he
inspires you to kick it into a higher gear.
Trent is one bright guy. He
resembles pretty closely in curiosity and intellect Reynie Muldoon, the young
protagonist of his The Mysterious Benedict Society series. Some tribal custom in
the remotest region of Africa? Trent can tell you. And he is a natural
storyteller. In fact, in a recent glowing review in The Horn Book (prominent
reviewer of children's literature), Trent was referred to as a "Master
Storyteller," which is the way that I'll refer to him from now on because he
really loves to be put on a pedestal.
There is nothing Master Storyteller
likes more than to be the center of attention. I'm only kidding. In fact, Trent
has the great talent of turning the conversation back to you, to your life, to
your interests, making you feel like you are more interesting than he is (You
Recently Trent realized I didn't know the difference
between a rifle and a shotgun, so instead of offering me a tedious description
of each (knowing he would lose me), he told me a story that delineated the
difference in a way that kept my attention. Given my interest in guns, that was
quite a feat. When not educating those of us ignorant to gun construction, he is
busy writing stories of his own, something he does very, very well.
published five novels, his first the beautifully evocative Flood Summer, set in
Arkansas in and around Hot Springs where Trent grew up, and four books in The
Mysterious Benedict Society series.
Flood Summer is regional literature at
its best and even includes Hendrix in its narrative as a place where his
protagonist, Abe, spends a bit of time before life intervenes and sends him on a
journey that includes some joy and some reckoning. The ending of Flood Summer is
as subtle and perfect as any ending that I know in American literature.
course, Trent has garnered national and international acclaim for his
award-winning The Mysterious Benedict Society, a series for young readers that
is classic story-telling in the manner of C.S. Lewis. These books feature the
adventures of four children – Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall,
and Constance Contraire, a parent-less team of geniuses charged with saving the
world time and again by using their considerable individual strengths, but also
by working as a team to thwart nefarious villainy.
My older kids have been
fans for years, and just recently I finished reading the first book of the
series aloud to my youngest son. It was quite a treat, and the experience
reminded me why this book was awarded the prestigious E.B. White Read Aloud
Award – it is as patiently descriptive and touching as it is suspenseful and
clever. And I'm quite sure that after defining for my son all of the unfamiliar
words that Trent includes in the narrative, my almost-8-year-old is prepared for
the verbal portion of the SAT exam.
Trent also collaborated on a puzzle book
associated with the series and just returned from a national tour promoting his
latest in the series, a "prequel," if you will, called The Extraordinary
Education of Nicholas Benedict, a novel that gives us the history of the beloved
Mr. Benedict, leader of the Mysterious Benedict Society and friend to all
orphans and vulnerable children. I was wholly absorbed in this one, making my
own children orphan-like and vulnerable as I batted them away, telling them to
leave me alone for the duration of my reading.
Often I think about how lucky
we are to have Trent in Arkansas to inspire our young readers and writers. He is
a fixture at the Arkansas Literary Festival, each year packing the house with
kids who are charmed within minutes of hearing him talk about their favorite
characters and scenes from the MBS series, and he has visited too many schools
to name here.
Last year I took advantage of my knowledge of Trent's fondness
for Shakespeare by asking him to join the Board of Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre,
an invitation he willingly and graciously accepted. For years now he has helped
this fledgling organization, writing original pieces for our annual fundraisers
and donating innumerable signed copies of his books for auction. I half-joked
with him before our last fundraiser that we should auction him off as our live
Most recently, for the "Shakespeare in the South" episode of
the NPR show "Tales from the South," Trent managed to weave together a story
about basketball, high school romance, and Shakespeare. And he did it
brilliantly. No surprise.
Trent says that stories were always a part of his
life, that his mother cultivated his interest in telling stories by telling her
own and also by playing elaborate games that involved imagination and fancy. He
wrote his own stories from an early age and entered Hendrix as an English major
intent on becoming a writer.
At Hendrix he forged a close relationship with
Jack Butler, the then-writer-in-residence and author of award-winning books
himself. Trent says of Butler: "He encouraged me to think of myself as a writer
and not a student-writer," advice Trent took seriously, for shortly after
leaving Hendrix, he was admitted into the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop.
From there Trent moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, when his wife, Sarah Beth Estes
'92, a sociology professor, was offered a tenure-track appointment at the
University of Cincinnati. After several years in Ohio working at the library,
raising kids, and reading and writing as much as possible, Trent sold both Flood
Summer and the first The Mysterious Benedict Society book in the same six-week
Trent and Sarah Beth decided to move back to Little Rock in 2006
with their boys, Elliot and Fletcher, to be closer to family, and Sarah Beth
took a job as a professor in the sociology department at UALR.
could ride the success of his books into the sunset, he is not one to rest on
his laurels. He is currently working on two separate ideas for children's novels
and has recently completed a new short story intended for an adult audience.
Trent has won numerous awards as a children's author, and his adult fiction has
been likewise lauded, landing in some of the most prestigious literary journals
in the country, including The New England Review, Shenandoah, The Georgia
Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review.
Trent's short fiction is to realize profoundly the versatility of his writing.
These stories demonstrate Trent's acute observational capabilities, so in tune
is he with how people interact with their natural habitats, how our
surroundings, in fact, often inspire our actions, thoughts, and beliefs.
Trent has already won the Porter Prize and the Booker Worthen Prize, the two
most prominent awards given to Arkansas writers. I have no doubt that more
awards are in his future for the words that are dancing around in his head right
now. He will string them together in a way that will capture the world's
attention again. That is what Master Storytellers do, after all.
Ruth Wilson Marotte '95 is a member of the English faculty at the University of
Central Arkansas and Executive Director of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival.