Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review #18: Secrets at Sea

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review returns to one of my favorite critters: mice!  Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck has been on my reading list for quite some time.  It's brimming with romance, adventure, and adorable talking mice--a winning combination!  Here's the summary from the book jacket:

Helena is big-sister mouse to three younger siblings, living a snug and well-fed life within the ancient walls of the Cranston family home.  When the Cranston humans decide to sail away to England to find a husband for one of their daughters, the Cranston mice stow away in the name of family solidarity.

And so begins the scamper of their lives as Helena, her siblings, and their humans set sail on a life-changing voyage into the great world of titled humans...and titled mice, and surprise endings for all.

If you're a children's writer, then you're probably already familiar with Richard Peck's work.  (His novel, A Year Down Yonder, DID win the Newbery Medal!)  Secrets at Sea is a charming story with the perfect mix of humor, action, and heart.  Add in adorable illustrations by Kelly Murphy, and it's a book that neither children nor adults can put down!  What I found particularly impressive about this book, though, are Peck's use of "mouse-isms" and pairing of voice and perspective.

Helena narrates the book from the first-person perspective.  She is the current elder of the family, playing mother, father, and big-sister to three siblings.  (Alas, her parents and older siblings passed away, leaving her in charge of some feisty young mice.)  Peck does a fantastic job showing the world through Helena's eyes, giving the story quite a bit of attitude and humor.  While the reader can tell Helena loves her siblings with all her heart, they are also a great source of irritation and frustration.  Helena's well-intentioned nagging at her siblings--as well as the array of thoughts she keeps to herself--are so funny yet heartfelt.  She may be annoyed that she has to sew the tail back on her brother, or lecture her sister again and again about getting too cozy with humans, but beneath all her sass is an undercurrent of worry and love.  This first-person perspective, combined with Helena's strong voice, makes her such a compelling and memorable narrator--and therefore makes the story unforgettable, too.  If you're thinking about writing your own novel from the first-person perspective, you should definitely see how Peck crafts an amazing narrator.

Peck's many "mouse-isms" go hand in hand (er, paw in paw?) with his use of voice.  As I've mentioned in my other book reviews, world building is so important in animal fantasy stories.  This doesn't just entail where animal societies live or what they eat, but their belief systems, too.  In Secrets at Sea, Helena and the other mice repeat common phrases with deep meanings.  From the first chapter on, a number of statements are frequently echoed, such as, "Water is not a happy subject with mice," "Times come when mice must pay their way," and, "For mice, time always seems to be running out."  Mice all over the world are familiar with these sentiments, from Helena and her siblings to the Duchess of Cheddar Gorge.  The common "mouse-isms" unite Peck's rodent society in an interesting way, but they also add a bittersweet tone--and a wee bit of foreboding--to Helena's narrative voice.  It's a fascinating concept, and something you may just want to include in your own animal fantasy story!

If you like tales about talking mice (complete with adorable illustrations), then this book is perfect for you.  If you like stories with furry wit and plenty of secrets, it's also a great pick for you.  And if you've ever wondered if rodents traveled in style on grand ocean liners, then it's certainly a must-read for you!  (Who hasn't wondered that?)  Of course, if you write animal fantasy books, you definitely need to get your paws on a copy of Secrets at Sea.  

You can find out more about Richard Peck and his other books on the Penguin website here

And if you read this book, do let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think.  :)

Happy reading!  

Note: Summary blurb is from the jacket copy; cover art is from the Penguin website and (c) Kelly Murphy.

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