On Yom Kippur, Josie plucked a book out of my listing stack of review copies. A couple of hours later, she tapped me on the shoulder as I lay in a hallucinating food-deprived cranky listless puddle of starving foulness on the couch. Her eyes were huge. She was holding The Little Secret by Kate Saunders. “This. Is. Amazing,” she said. “This is the best book I have ever read. EVER.” (She says this approximately once a month, but still, high praise.)
I read it late in the afternoon. (Incidentally, reading children’s books turns out to be a great Yom Kippur activity. It’s just the right speed for the calorically deprived brain, and you feel virtuous because you’re doing this for your wee offspring’s literary benefit!) (Yeah, right.)
I loved the book almost as much as Josie did. It’s a total page-turner, the story of a lower-middle-class girl named Jane who befriends a weirdly dressed, pale girl who appears in her small-town classroom one day. Jane winds up in a crazy, super-suspenseful, hey-whoa-it’s-a-portal-to-another-world adventure. For girls who have outgrown pink-princess-y stuff but are still drawn to the trappings of fairy tales — the fantasy, the class issues, the fabulous CLOTHES — this book is a total bullseye. The description of gowns: luscious. And for Josie, who is fascinated by political injustice (witness her interest in the Triangle Fire and books about suffrage and civil rights), there’s even a thrilling revolution in which almost all the leaders are girls. I am generally not a huge fan of fantasy as a genre, yet I couldn’t put this down. Even while starving. Yes, the dawning of certain characters’ political consciousness comes way too quickly, and the illustrations look like they were done by the most talented little goth in your ninth grade. But still.
Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review:
The Little Secret Kate Saunders, illus. by William Carman. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-312-36961-3 In this quirky and appealing British import, down-to-earth Jane, 11, who has six unruly brothers (and is often mistaken for a boy herself), finds her ordinary life changing when peculiar Staffa enrolls in her class and chooses her for a best friend. Staffa’s mother, enormous Lady Matilda, is even stranger: wealthy, generous and yet frightening, she invites Jane to journey home with them for vacation. Jane is intrigued by their obsession with a painted box, which turns out to be the portal to a miniature kingdom where they reign, to which she is transported with them. Jane is drawn into what appears to be a fairy tale come true and is mesmerized by her ball gowns and jewels (“She looked like every girl’s secret idea of a princess”), but she soon picks up forebodings of ill will and evil deeds. The fairy tale turns into a fast-paced story of political revolution, in which Jane plays an important role. This well-blended mix of romantic fantasy and gripping adventure, starring heroic girls, will speak to a broad audience. Ages 8–11.
Makes you wanna read it, no? Yet I get the sense this book sank upon arrival. There are no reviews on the Amazon page; I haven’t noted anyone blogging about it; there are almost no comments on the book’s GoodReads page. I don’t know why it seemingly fizzled here. Maybe the slightly formal, very British tone? Those amateurish illustrations? The unenticing, crowded cover? (The British version is a lot more appealing, IMHO.) Maybe there weren’t enough review copies sent out? Maybe booksellers were insufficiently sucked-up-to? I have no clue how books are sold. (If I did, Hungry would be a breakaway best-seller, right?) So I hope enough feminist and adventure-loving parents will somehow find out about this book and pick it up for their spawn. Spawn: The audience that really matters, anyway.