Option 8: The Secret by Lin Acacio Flores
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So what if it was a mystery why the girls weren't allowed in the building anymore to enjoy the gym and the library?
So what if she had seen Sister Carentia enter the building with a huge basket on her arm and then lie about going there?
So what if Sister Carentia's cheeks turned as red as the tomatoes she was slicing when asked what was in the building?
Your curiosity will get you into trouble again, Rica scolded herself. Like, when you got caught peeking into the nuns' cloister. Then you were not allowed to play at all during recess for a whole month . . .
When I was making a list of six new books to throw into the June Giveaway pool this year, The Secret was the first title I wrote down. I discovered this novella about ten years ago, when my younger sister had to read it in grade school, and I remember liking it so much more than all the other local books she had been assigned over the years.
Well, I've just reread it and discovered I was grading on a curve! =P It's really not half as good as I remembered.
So how in the world did it manage to make the pool???
It's here because it makes a decent Reading Diary entry! =P
Besides, I'm willing to sweeten the deal by throwing in a copy of a longer WWII Middle Grade read by the same author, although I can't really tell you about it because I haven't read it yet:
But back to The Secret, which I can tell you about.
I'll have an easier time explaining what frustrated me so much this time around if you read another excerpt with me first:
Looking out of the window, Rica saw a nun walking to the grade school building. She carried a basket covered with a large napkin. It was Sister Carentia, the nun in charge of the kitchen and of the boarders . . . She was walking briskly, not with her usual slow gait. In front of the door, she looked around briefly, as if to make sure that no one lingered nearby. From the depths of her pockets . . . she took what must have been a key and unlocked the door. She looked around her again, and then opened the door just wide enough for her round body with all her robes to slip through.
. . .
Sister Carentia stayed an hour. Just before the dinner bell rang, Rita saw Sister come out of the building, lock the door carefully, and look furtively around, her head bobbing like a blackbird's. Then she walked briskly to the dining hall.
For a week, Rica sat at the same table. Every evening at twilight, she watched Sister Carentia go in and out, the basket on her arm. Was she bringing dinner to someone hiding there?
Nestled innocuously enough among those paragraphs are three little words that took me right out of the story like a record needle scratch.
For a week.
I mean, a week goes by and all we're told of it is that Rica has made sure to study by the same window every evening so she can spy on Sister Carentia?
And that upsets me no small bit because The Secret is a boarding school-set book. I've read so many of these over the years: Louisa May Alcott's Little Men, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did at School, J.K. Rowling's entire Harry Potter series, even Lauren Kate's Fallen (which earned its own Locus Focus post for its unrepentantly edgy school). And thanks to those books, I've come to expect timelines that are much more eventful than what Acacio-Flores gives us. Yes, it's plausible that the most interesting thing that happens over seven whole days is Sister Carentia's mysterious mission in the grade school building; what's not plausible is that it's the only interesting thing.
But let's be fair and remember that The Secret is a novella, only about 25,000 words long. It is Rica's story and one the other students hardly have a part in. Even her best friend Sylvia is barely fleshed out, and the twin boarders Karen and Maren might as well be part of the scenery. None of the other thirty-six girls are named at all; and from among the teachers, we meet only two nuns.
After I reread this last week, I found myself wishing that Acacio-Flores had conceived this as a full-length novel, in which the four girls work together to spy on the sisters and figure out the secret. (Ah, if wishes were books, my library would be a hundred times the size it is now . . . and many of those titles would be my own!) But that's also a bit unfair. The local publishing industry is still struggling to grow a strong YA/MG branch today, and this novella came out in the late 1990s. And I suspect that if Acacio-Flores had not already won several awards for her children's stories and magazine short stories, The Secret would never have been published. I may not be able to gush over it as a "boarding school book," but I can respect it as a pioneer.
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you really like stories set during World War II, because the author based this and Adventures of a Child of War on her own experiences of the war as a girl.
Image Source: Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores