Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Ages: 11+

Max Starling has settled into his new identity as Mister Max, a "solutioneer" (not a detective) of indeterminate age, who uses disguises and roles learned in his parents' theater to solve people's problems without anyone noticing that he's a 12-year-old boy living alone. Well, not exactly alone; he does have a lodger, and his Grammie lives just across his backyard. But his parents remain mysteriously missing, possibly living in character as the king and queen of a tiny South American country, and now Max has received a cryptic message from his father that may just be a cry for help.

While he struggles to understand what he can do for his parents, Max carries on solutioneering – first helping a little boy who's worried about his father, then a father worried about his son and finally, a young man who wants to know if he can do anything to help a beautiful young woman with whatever she's worried about. Between all these cases, I mean jobs, comes one from the Mayor of Queensbridge that puts Max in the most danger he's faced yet. Someone is vandalizing and setting fires to businesses all over town, and the more Max understands what's going on, the more he becomes a target for the people behind it.

But Max's biggest worry isn't the secrets other people are keeping, but how to keep his own. What he wants most of all is independence, and if anyone finds out about his living situation, he could lose that. So he gets a little snippy with the girl who has appointed herself his assistant. He gets evasive with a schoolmate who sees through his disguises. And at a couple of moments, this need to keep secrets puts him in an awful dilemma – such as whether to ask for, and accept, the help that he really needs.

Max's adventures are both written and illustrated in a quirky, original way that puts emphasis on the theatrical home in which he grew up. The unique way he thinks, the solutions he arrives at for other people's problems, the way he almost disappears into a role and even (once or twice) holds debates between different characters he is dancing between, his amazing strengths and abilities are a lot of fun in and of themselves. But then you see his vulnerability, his weaknesses, the things he simply can't do – from painting anything but a watercolor sky to saving his family without help – and he becomes a living person you would like to know.

This is the middle book of the "Mister Max" trilogy by the Newbery Medal winning author of Dicey's Song and six other "Tillerman Cycle" books, Jackaroo and five other "Tales of the Kingdom," The Bad Girls and five sequels, The Callender Papers, The Vandemark Mummy, and somewhere around 15 other novels for young adult readers. The other "Mister Max" titles are The Book of Lost Things and The Book of Kings.

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