Eleven-year-old Reuben spends his days hiding. It isn’t that he has anyone or anything in particular to hide from. Although his city, New Umbra, is ruled by a terrible man called The Smoke who has minions everywhere, it’s not likely that someone as small and insignificant as Reuben would be of any interest to him. Nevertheless, Reuben just loves to hide. On summer days when his mother is at work, he roams the city finding new ways to vanish from sight.
On one of these excursions, while climbing a wall in an alley, Reuben finds a treasure: a very old, very beautiful watch tucked away into a crevice. He hopes to be able to sell it to help his mother pay the rent, or maybe even find a better place to live. But after he takes it to a watchmaker called Mrs. Genevieve to determine its value, Reuben discovers that the watch is even more extraordinary than he had realized: It has the power to grant invisibility for 15 minutes at a time.
Now Reuben can literally vanish from sight — but now The Smoke does have a reason to find him, and the power to hide will not be enough to save him. He will have to rely on Mrs. Genevieve and on the Meyers, a family of lighthouse keepers who also have an interest in the watch, to help him stay out of sight and find a way to protect his mother, the watch, and his entire city.
Trenton Lee Stewart, author of the bestselling Mysterious Benedict Society series, has another hit on his hands in “The Secret Keepers.” The story is beautifully written, with strong characters who experience laudable growth along the way. At a little over 500 pages, “The Secret Keepers” may seem a rather lengthy book for its middle-school audience. But Reuben is a likable hero who will probably win them over very quickly, and as the story gathers steam, there’s enough suspense and excitement along the way to keep them reading.
Reuben’s relationships with family and friends are warm and admirable. His mother is a hardworking woman with a great sense of humor, who has kept the two of them going since her husband died in Reuben’s infancy. Mrs. Genevieve, though timid, develops a strong attachment to Reuben, to the point where she is willing to take great risks to help him. And Penny and Jack Meyer, members of the family who have guarded the watch’s secret for centuries, turn out to be brave, loyal, and (mostly) honest friends.
Penny in particular places a high value on honesty, and it’s hard on her that she and Reuben and Jack are sometimes forced to lie to protect their secret and even to save their lives. But she’s the one most troubled by the necessity. Reuben pretty much accepts it, and Jack has fun with it, eventually earning a reputation as “both an unrepetant liar and an honest man.” This is probably the biggest content issue in the book, but while the characters sometimes resort to dishonesty, they at least seem to understand the value of the truth and don’t evade it more than necesssary. There’s no sexual content or profanity and very little violence. The Smoke is creepy and unashamedly evil, but is likelier to make readers a bit nervous than to actually frighten them.
More importantly, “The Secret Keepers” has some great themes about the importance of friendship, cleverness, and courage, and the dangers of greed and selfishness, woven into the story. There’s a lot here that both kids and their parents will enjoy.
Image copyright Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.