Sunrise was at 5:12, sunset will be at 9:05! Already twilight, that extraordinary purple light we get here after the sun goes down, lasts until almost 10. It's cold today, the air is full of water but it isn't raining. Yet. There are patches of blue through the clouds and it's hard to believe that we're just a couple of weeks from summer.
I recently got to be a part of a telephone roundtable with Natalie Standiford, her editor David Levithan, and a whole slew of booksellers from across the country! We dialed in and were introduced to each other and then just started to talk.
We were gathered together to talk about Natalie's new book, The Secret Tree, published by Scholastic. Well, it turns out that we are all big fans of The Secret Tree, one of those great summer books for middle grades. It's filled with intrigue and mystery, growing up and growing away, learning what it's like to be a person all by yourself.
The Secret Tree is about Minty, a girl heading into 6th grade, and the summer everything changes. She and her best friend, Paz, want to be roller derby skaters and they spend a lot of their time trying on new names and practicing their moves. Both girls have older sisters, great parents, and live in a neighborhood with woods and a haunted house and everyone knows who they are.
One day, there's a flash of light in the woods. Minty, against the wishes of everyone she knows, chases the flashmaker through the woods. Worries about the Man-Bat and the witch in the house on the other side notwithstanding, Minty charges after the boy, losing him in the trees. When she stops and looks around, she is standing next to a big tree with a huge hole in it. In the hole is a piece of paper. On the paper is a secret. No one loves me except my goldfish.
Minty follows the flashes to a boy named Raymond who lives in a model house in an unfinished cul de sac on the other side of the woods and, drawn together by the secrets left in the tree, they become friends.
Through the summer, Minty and Raymond spy on their neighbors, matching secrets to people, all the while navigating the rough world of growing up. Raymond has secrets he shouldn't have to keep on his own, Minty's friend Paz is growing away from her, and Minty's sister, Thea, has become the epitome of what a true teenager is: moody, scary, unpredictable.
Their little neighborhood has too many secrets and something's going to go drastically wrong.
The Secret Tree was GREAT! It's a cross between Harriet the Spy and Post Secret. I love the idea that if you can put your fears, your secrets, out into the world they won't be festering in your mind. By making them solid and then releasing them, perhaps they lose their power. I like that, by confessing this way, the secret keepers also take the chance that the secrets will become public, that maybe they can be absolved and forgiven for what they perceive as sins. The confessional, after all, is just a hole in a tree, lots of people have secrets in there! The secret's been told, now they can go on.
Minty is just a really well-written character. She is at that tipping point between being a part of an amorphous body of a child-filled mob, between that point of just being and loving what and who you are and wondering how others see you and worrying about the things to come. Her best friend is growing up ahead of her, the teenagers in their families are awful, and the secrets people hold are tearing them apart.
This is a good read for ages 9 and up. A couple of people on the roundtable were reading it to their younger children and it can certainly extend into the early teen years. There's so much more to the book than the surface jacket copy. It would be a good choice for an all-school read, and I think any teacher who is still reading aloud to a classroom should move it to the top of the pile, lots and lots of very discussable points. (Scholastic. $16.99. Available now.)
And so I had to read all the other young adult books Natalie's written:
How to Say Goodbye in Robot is one of those books that you'll remember for a very long time. Bea is a new girl in town and the seating chart in school has put her next to Jonah, a boy everyone calls Ghost Boy (he gets this name via a cruel joke in middle school). Jonah, not a big fan of people in general, makes an exception for Bea and the two of them soon find themselves inseparable. It's a love story but not one you'd expect.
I still have a tender spot in my chest where my heart hurt while reading Goodbye. It's a story of loneliness and love and how much people really do need each other and how far they'll go to help someone they care for. There's a community of late night radio listeners who are each others' family, there's great betrayal, great redemption, and great love. I carried this book in my bag for days after I finished it. Just didn't want it to end. Ages 14 and up. (Scholastic. Published in 2009.)
Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters was a hoot! On Christmas morning, a wealthy Baltimore dowager lets her family know just how offended she is by something one of the family did. She will disown them all and leave them penniless unless they, the children of the family, confess, in writing, to the sin. But who did it? It turns out the sisters all have secrets that could have been the reason for being Almighty's dissatisfaction with them.
Confessions is a little heartbreaking, a story of discovery, really funny, and it is a great look at how families work (or don't). Like Standiford's other books, it's filled with secrets that will eat at one's soul, secrets best lit up like paper lanterns and let go to burn to ash in the air. Ages 14 and up. (Scholastic. Published in 2010).
(No recompense was received for books reviewed in this blog.)