The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch is sure to appeal to fans of the Lemony Snicket books and The Mysterious Benedict Society. It's a mystery, aimed squarely at middle grade readers (accessible for boys and girls). It uses a narrative structure somewhat like that of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, in which the narrator speaks directly to the reader, and in fact warns the reader against reading the book. The first page has, in large text, "Warning: Do Not Read Beyond this Page!". When you turn the page (and who wouldn't?) you find this:
Now I know I can trust you.
You're curious. You're brave. And you're not afraid to lead a life of crime.
But let's get something straight: if, despite my warning, you insist on reading this book, you can't hold me responsible for the consequences.
And, make no bones about it, this is a very dangerous book."
And so on. Chapter One is printed entirely in an unbreakable code (all x's). Not until Chapter 1.5 does the narrator relent, and begin the story. There are illustrations at the start of every chapter, occasional lists, frequent footnotes, codes, and embedded stories, not to mention investigative tips sprinkled throughout the text (as though the narrator might perhaps be a spy himself). The plot is complex and dark, with genuinely creepy bad guys, daring escapades, Circus performers, and certain Gothic elements.
The two main characters, Cass and Max-Ernest, are appealing. I especially enjoyed Max-Ernest, a boy who can't stop talking, and who lives in a literally split household between two parents who can't agree even to divorce (the situation is a bit Roald Dahl-esqe, I think). There's also a boy named Benjamin who is has synesthesia (he sees everything, including words, as colors and/or smells). He is rather intriguing. Also casually thrown in are a pair of surrogate grandfathers who live together (exact relationship undefined) in an old firehouse. Grandpa Larry and Grandpa Wayne care for Cass when her mother is unavailable.
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the dark background against the throwaway humor of the narrator. I laughed out loud several times, especially at footnotes like these:
"... turn to the Appendix. That's at the end of the book, by the way, not in your body." (Page 15)
"But please don't draw any conclusions about the kind of people who write novels. After all, not all novelists are power-hungry madmen -- some are power-hungry madwomen. (Page 127)
And yet... The book felt a bit constructed to me. Take the narrative style of the Lemony Snicket books, add in some codes and puzzles and a dash of quirky characters, and mix well. I still enjoyed it. I thought that the whole thing was well-done and creatively presented. The black and white illustrations set just the right tone for each chapter. I think that kids in the 9 to 12 range will find the book a lot of fun. The Name of this Book is Secret is an excellent next book to give kids who enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society. But I personally felt a tiny bit manipulated by the whole production. Not enough to keep me from giving the book to kids, and probably not enough to keep me from reading future books in what will apparently be a series, it's something that I noticed. I'll be interested to hear what other people think.
Note: after having finished this review, I just read Leila and Becky's reviews, both of whom, in generally positive reviews, mentioned the possibility of the book being considered "gimmicky". So I'm not alone in my mixed feelings.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.