Lots of people suggested I read The Name of this Book Is Secret, and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s the kind of irreverent metahumor that I love. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, explicitly playing with the nature of what a book is, such as letting the reader write the last chapter (there is in fact a page of lines which you could write on). At one point the narrator bribes him/herself to continue telling this difficult tale by bribing him/herself with really good chocolate. It reminds me a lot of A Series of Unfortunate Events in the narrator’s tone, although I found this book overall a bit less morbid and more funny.
Cass and Max-Ernest are our heroes—11 year olds trying to solve a mystery involving a dead magician and his twin brother. And honestly, other than that you’ll just really have to read it for yourself. The book is illustrated with quirky drawings, although it bugged me that sometimes they didn’t match the text.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Morbidity & Violence
It starts out with the apparent death by fire of a magician—he’s identified by his teeth, as that’s all that’s left. Cass learns about this because of Gloria, the real estate agent to the dead (she sells estates, primarily).
The villains—who are truly villainous—sacrifice children in a quest for immortality. It’s working, as they’ve been youthful for centuries. But what they’re prepared to do to kids (and apparently have done to kids before) is awful. It goes into some detail about how they have tortured Benjamin—a classmate of Cass and Max-Ernest who was kidnapped—and they will harvest his brain while he’s still alive.
Cass and Max-Ernest rescue Benjamin but burn down the compound in the process and it seems likely that a number of people died in the fire.
Cass lives with her mom and doesn’t know who her dad is. She has two substitute granddads, Larry and Wayne, who own an antique shop where Cass spends a lot of time. (It’s never explicitly stated that Larry and Wayne are a couple, but it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to make, at least for an adult.) Cass appreciates that she can usually convince Larry and Wayne to let her get away with stuff that her mother wouldn’t, but they aren’t portrayed as fools. Cass’ mom is loving but a bit overprotective.
Max-Ernest lives with both of his parents. Sort of. They’re divorced, but they decided that it’s important for a child to grow up with both his parents. Therefore, they share a house split down the middle and they each ignore the existence of the other. Not surprisingly, this results in Max-Ernest having more than a few issues.
Cass is fully prepared for any possible catastrophe, to the point of being paranoid. Her school has ceased to take her warnings seriously; the principal sincerely doubts that there’s toxic waste in the schoolyard, for instance (and the principal is correct). In the end, though, it’s her preparation for any disaster that helps her survive and solve the mystery. It’s also Max-Ernest’s tendency to at least consider her crazy schemes that helps her become friends with him.
Max-Ernest talks a lot. Really a lot. In his young life he’s seen tons of specialists and he’s been diagnosed with just about everything imaginable, but none of the pills or exercises have helped him.
Several characters have synesthesia, including Benjamin, the magician, and the magician’s twin brother. As the magician says, “For people who have the synesthesia, the sounds and the colors and even the smells are all mixed up in our heads.” This gives the young twins a way to secretly communicate with each other through smells and colors. It also, somehow, is integral to the ritual that keeps the villains essentially immortal.
None of these kids have an easy time. They’re all targets for the mean kids at school. They eventually become friends or allies of a sort—when Benjamin is kidnapped, Cass knows she has to go after him. She leaves Max-Ernest behind, but as soon as he realizes she’s in trouble, he heads after her. The foreshadowing at the end of the book suggests that these connections will grow stronger as the series goes on.
Alchemy is nearly a religion, a passionate life-long quest. It doesn’t matter who you step on, use, or hurt, as long as you get what you want. There’s definitely a cultish feel to the group that the villains are part of.
Secrets & Lying
Lying is a pretty important skill, especially useful for hiding things from your parents. The book contains some guidance on not getting caught in a lie, such as practicing, including some truth, using emotional blackmail. Cass is a pretty good liar, and it’s a skill that helps her more than it hurts her. She explicitly keeps secrets from her mom, knowing that it’s the only way to keep her protective mother from, well, protecting her by not allowing her to do stuff she wants to do. I appreciate that the book embraces this convention by calling out its usefulness in the plot.
The whole book, not surprisingly, is built around secrets and the dangers of knowing, keeping, and sharing secrets.
For kids with an irreverent and off-kilter sense of humor, this book is a delight. I thought it was really funny and I appreciated the misfit characters finding strength together. It’s suitable for readers maybe 10 and up. It’s a good fit for precocious readers. In many ways it would make a good read aloud because of the conversational tone, but there’s also some visual humor.
I read this out loud to the kids. It took us a while for a variety of reasons, and sometimes it was hard to keep the threads of the plot together if the gaps between reading sessions were too long. But the kids loved it, and have now both read it on their own. We’ve also read If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (I haven’t written a review, but if The Name of this Book is Secret is fine for your kid, the 2nd book will be as well) and my son is bugging me to get the third book, This Book Is Not Good For You.
The Name of this Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
Published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Company
First in the Secret Series
Read my paperback copy