Middle-grade sci-fi review: Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers

Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, by Larry David Tuxbury and Matthew McElligott. Illustrations by Matthew McEllligott.

The Benjamin Franklinstein series:

Benjamin Franklin has been in suspended animation in his Philadelphia basement for the past two centuries, waiting to be awoken when the world faces a big emergency and needs its historical inventors. When lightning strikes the basement, Ben’s up and searching for the emergency. He’s also coping with advent of remote controls, bicycles, and Bermuda shorts. The only person who knows the founding father is alive is middle-school student Victor Godwin, Ben’s upstairs neighbor and guide to the modern world.

I have to admit that I meant to read the first book in this series, Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! but mistakenly ordered the second, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, so I’ll be reviewing the second book here.  Both books—and the third in the series, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets Thomas Dedison—were written by Matthew McElligot and Larry Tuxbury and excellently illustrated by Matthew McElligott. They’re for kids aged 8 to 12.

Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers:

The newly reanimated, electrically powered Benjamin Franklin and his guide to the modern world, middle-school student Victor Godwin, learn that an undead duo of famous inventors is under the control of a mysterious “emperor” with nefarious plans for taking over the city of Philadelphia. With the help of a local meteorologist, Ben, Victor, and Victor’s friend Scott use science and the weather to foil the emperor’s evil scheme.

This week I was feeling homesick for the United States in general and Pennsylvania in particular and wanted something light and fun to read, so I turned to the Benjamin Franklinstein series. My thought was that it would be harder to find a cooler premise than a reanimated Benjamin Franklin monster-hero loose in Philly hunting alleged vampires on the Fourth of July. By golly, I wasn’t disappointed, although I did wish for more Philly atmosphere.

One final caveat before moving on the kid-o-meter scales: although I ordered the book thinking it was fantasy, after reading it, I would classify it as science fiction. Nothing that happens is magic; it’s all explained by (admittedly fantastic) science.

Kid-o-meter scales

1. This book made me laugh out loud: 4. Benjamin Franklin just woke up from a really long sleep (like more than 200 years long), so he doesn’t quite have the hang of things like TV remotes and bicycles yet, but he does like cartoons and stickers. One of this book’s major strengths is its humor.

2. This book has good action: 3. Action abounds in this book, from vampire-like attacks on prominent city officials to zombie-like people chasing Victor and Scott, to a big final battle between Ben and early aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

3. This book is suspenseful: 3. There’s certainly enough suspense here to keep you reading. You’ll wonder what the huge bats flying around and terrifying Philly really are; what the evil emperor’s goal is; who the emperor is; and how Ben, Victor, and Scott will stop him—just to name a few things.

4. The ending does not disappoint: 4. Right up to the final page I thought I’d give this item on the scale a lower rating. I thought the ending was good, but I just couldn’t understand why the emperor was hatching evil plans for dominating the city. What was his motivation? However, a surprise revelation in the very last sentence explains it, and I’m pretty sure you’ll want to read the next book to find out what happens.

5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 3. Ben is charming, Victor is a pleasant tech-type kid who learns a lesson about underestimating others, and Scott is a really nice kid and loyal friend to Victor—even when Victor’s being difficult. I think you’ll care what happens to them.

Kid’s questions

1. How old is the main character? Middle-school aged. I don’t remember that the writers gave his actual age, but my guess is 11 or 12.

2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes. Ben and Victor are joined by Scott and, near the end, by Scott’s father, who I hope returns in later books.

3. Is this a series or just one book? A series.

4. Is there at least one nice grownup? All the grownups but the evil emperor are nice in this book: Ben, Scott’s father, Victor’s mother, the major, the chief of police, the local reporter. Even the Wright brothers would be nice if they weren’t under the control of the emperor.

5. Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? Nope. Not even the tiniest whiff of mush.

Adult’s questions

1. What’s the major source of suspense? Ben, Victor, and their friends have several mysteries to solve. First of all, was Ben awakened by accident or on purpose? In other words, is society facing a great emergency, or did a fluke bolt of lightning reanimate Ben? What’s the truth behind the sightings of huge bats in the skies over Philadelphia? Are vampires at large, or is there another explanation? Who are the mysterious brothers in black, owners of a new bicycle shop, and what are they really doing with all those bikes? Who is behind the evil plan connected with the bike shop?

2. Which classic fantasy elements does this book contain? Well . . . I thought this book was fantasy when I bought it, but after reading it, it’s clear to me that it’s science fiction. The reanimation of Franklin, the apparent vampire attacks, the huge bats spied in the sky over Philly, the evil emperor’s plan to take over the city and Ben’s plan to foil the attempt are all scientific, not magical, at their core.

3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Tolerance and empathy aren’t major themes in the book, but Victor does learn not to judge people so quickly: even unserious, silly-seeming people may be good scientists.

4. Is there profanity or violence? The book contains no profanity. Some of the scenes include chases and fights, but there’s no bloodshed, and no one dies. A number of “custodians”—people who watched over famous inventors while they were in suspended animation—have either died or disappeared mysteriously, but those events happened offstage before the action described in the book. I think the book is entirely appropriate for younger middle-grade readers.

5. How about mature themes or dark creatures? I did not notice any mature themes in this book. The giant bats, the vampire-like attacks on some of Philadelphia’s prominent citizens, and the pale and evil-seeming Wright brothers may seem to be dark creatures at first, but they are not. Instead, science lies at the heart of the plot.

This well-structured, nicely written, funny, imaginative, and well-illustrated book does not resonate with deep underlying themes, let alone deep underlying themes of darkness or evil, so my guess is that your kids will not find this book disturbing in the long run—just suspenseful, a little bit scary, and a lot of fun to read. After reading Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, your child might become interested in learning more about Benjamin Franklin, American history, famous inventors like the Wright Brothers, famous scientists like Nikola Tesla, and scientific facts about electricity and meteorology. I doubt the book will prompt a deep interest in dark creatures like vampires.

6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? The subject doesn’t come up.

7. What about politics and government? This topic doesn’t come up directly, either. The mayor and police chief are portrayed as good people placed under mind control by the sinister evil emperor.

8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? The main characters are all male, which didn’t bother me. The mayor and a reporter are strong women characters, although they play minor roles. Victor’s mom appears in a few scenes and makes food. It’s not clear if she works from home, outside the home, or is a homemaker. Perhaps the authors have left this information purposely vague or explained it in the first volume in the series. As an aside, Victor’s mom doesn’t worry that her son hangs around alone in the basement of an older and very odd downstairs neighbor for large parts of the day, which would really have concerned me if I were in her place, but this is fiction, and it’s necessary for the plot for Victor to spend a lot of time together with Ben. Victor’s father doesn’t appear in the story at all. Again, I don’t know why, but maybe his absence is explained in volume one. It’s not necessary to the plot for us to know, either, so maybe the writers left it out for this reason.

Perhaps in an attempt to rectify the absence of a main female character, a middle-school-aged girl appears about halfway through the book in the role of a “custodian,” one of the people who puts inventors in suspended animation and reanimates them when they’re needed. She’s taken over the role after the disappearance of her parents, the real custodians. I look forward to reading more about her and her missing parents in the volume 3 of the series.

9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? The writers engineer a disagreement between Victor and his friend Scott toward the end of the book; the argument comes about because Victor needs to learn not to judge a book by its cover. To summarize, Ben and the kids need a meteorologist to help them defeat the emperor, and Scott wants to turn to his father, the local TV weatherman known for his outrageous on-air shenanigans. Victor, however, can’t believe there’s a competent atmospheric scientist behind the joking exterior. He soon learns better and grows to respect Scott’s father. I would want to discuss this incident with my kids: Is our first impression of people always correct? Why or why not?

10. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? No, this is a good book for younger middle-grade readers.

11. How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? There are two writers here, and the end product is a competently written, well-structured, fun, and humorous sci-fi adventure. I’m no great judge of illustrations, but I found the illustrations in this book very appealing, and think your kids will, too.

If the writers have an Achilles heel, it has to do with believability of characterization, but remember, they’re working with a limited word count. Additionally, as an adult I may notice things that their target audience would gloss over as unimportant or irrelevant to the plot and thus uninteresting. That said, I felt there were several instances in which characters reacted in questionably believable ways. I’ve already mentioned the first one, Victor’s mom’s reaction to her son spending a lot of time alone with the odd (e.g., always wears a scarf to hide the bolts in his neck) older man who lives downstairs.

The second is cursory treatment of the trauma of the middle-school-aged girl custodian’s loss of her parents. Ben, Victor, and Scott meet this girl in a local diner. When she divulges the information that her parents are missing and she’s presumably living with a group of other custodians, the group’s reaction—especially Ben’s—seems too lukewarm. Here’s a middle-school kid who’s lost her parents. Where’s she living? Is she eating right? Who’s taking care of her? Any reasonable adult would be concerned, and many reasonable kids, too.

Finally, Scott’s Dad reacts with great equanimity to learning that Benjamin Franklin is alive and well and has been in suspended animation for 200 years. He’s not torn about helping Ben or curious for proof. He’s not excited to tell the world about the ability of people to go into suspended animation. He just wants to help.

12. The Philly thing. As a Pennsylvanian and the daughter of a man who grew up just south of Philly, I just can’t let this review go without a comment on the setting. To my mind, the least realistic part of the story was not that Ben Franklin put himself in suspended animation and re-awoke, or that a mysterious Emperor is using mind control to turn the Wright Brothers into bad guys to take over the City of Brotherly Love. It’s not that a few character react to events and circumstances in ways I found a little hard to swallow. Nope. It’s that the city has been cleaned up and cooled down.

In the book, it’s summer in Philly, but no one dodges a bullet or dies of heat stroke, both of which are, I feel, equally likely. No hoagies are eaten, no cheese steaks, no soft pretzels with or without mustard, no whoopee pies. There no tasteful statues of Mary and Jesus in people’s yards (OK maybe that’s a south-of-Philly thing). So what gives? Well, maybe the writers toned down the wilder local pastimes and lowered the temperatures for the youthful readership, but what I really suspect is that they are in factuality from someplace else, like maybe New York.

How comes do I suspect this? The big giveaway is that one of the characters asks the other—twice—if there are swamps in Philly. Oh heck yeah there are. Out by the airport. Back in the day my dad and his brothers used to bike in there and trap & skin muskrats there and sell their corpses for food and their pelts for those Davy Crockett hats kids wore when it was Howdy Doody Time. Those were the days, huh? Can you believe stuff like that went on only half a lifetime ago? Now Philadelphians have advanced to the point where they don’t kill animals like that anymore (I think), just each other. I hope that changes soon, too, because it’s no joke.

Man, I’m STILL homesick.

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