I am always reminded of the lack of well written, creative mysteries for middle grade readers, by the constant requests from young customers and by the lack of them on the shelves. That's what prompted me to repost this review of Elise Broach's fantastic book. Shakespeare's Secret is a complex mystery with intriguing historical and literary plot threads.
I think that Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach is definitely a descendant of the amazing EL Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and The Second Mrs Giaconda, which involve works by Micheangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Shakespeare's Secret is also part of the (growing, I hope) tradition of contemporary novels for children that involve famous artists, writers, historical figures and/or works of art, such as Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game, which involve the artist Johannes Vermeer, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the mobile sculptor, Alexander Calder.
Hero and Beatrice, twelve and fourteen, are sisters and the daughters of a Shakespearean scholar who moves his family all over the country as he finishes graduate school, does research and finally lands a job as an archivist in Washington D.C. Beatrice is blond and beautiful and fits in easily, it seems, wherever the are. Hero, perhaps because of the teasing that always comes with her name, is shy, reserved and, as her friend Danny says, "You walk around looking like you expect everybody to pick on you. And then they kind of do."
This story is almost equal parts real life girl story, family drama and historical drama. There are a mysteries intertwined with each story, some more compelling than others, but all intriguing and exciting to read. Hero and Beatrice's names are from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the play her parents were studying when they met in a college English class. However, because Shakespeare is her dad's "thing" Hero has never read the play. At her mother's insistence, Hero introduces herself to the family's older neighbor, Mrs Roth, and the two strike up a friendship over crossword puzzles, cinnamon toast and the Murphy Diamond, which might be hidden in the house Hero's family just moved into. The Murphy Diamond is as the center of the two biggest mysteries of the book, one which involves the characters in the story, a sick wife, a runaway daughter and an absentee mom. The other mystery is the lineage of the necklace that the diamond belongs to, a necklace that Mrs Roth has in her possession. With the help of her father, Hero discovers that the necklace belonged to Anne Boleyn. It was then passed on through the descendants of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, making it's way to Mr Murphy's wife. Woven into the plot of Shakespeare's Secret are speculations on the true nature of de Vere's relationship with Queen Elizabeth I and theories supporting the idea that Edward de Vere may have been the true author of the plays of William Shakespeare.
Broach unfolds her story nicely and gives the reader time to get to know the engaging, thoughtful characters of Hero, her neighbor and fellow diamond hunter Danny Cordova, two years her senior, very popular at school and the cause of much of Hero's social distress, and Mrs Roth. I think I may have been more drawn into the story of these three characters than the story of the hunt for the diamond, but I am an adult and have never been a big fan of mysteries. That said, all of the historical information surrounding Anne Boleyn, Edward de Vere and William Shakespeare was both fascinating and new to me. I had heard that scholars believed that the man who was William Shakespeare, because of his background, could not have written the plays he did, but never knew why. I am a huge fan of any novel for children (and adults, for that matter) that introduces us to actual historical figures and works of art or literature through a compelling contemporary plot, and Broach does this beautifully, ending pitch perfectly with Hero opening the complete works of Shakespeare given to her by Mrs Roth (despite the numerous copies her father must own) and sitting down to finally read Much Ado About Nothing.
I especially appreciated the timeline at the end of the book and the author's note that provided more background on Shakespeare, de Vere, Boleyn and their possible connections. The paperback also includes a great interview with Elise Broach and the few pages of her next book, Masterpiece, another mystery, this time involving a drawing by the Renaissance artist Albrect Durer, a ten-year old boy names James and a beetle who uses his legs to produce astonishing miniature pen and ink drawings like Durer's!
Elise Broach is also the author of one of the best picture books of 2008, When Dinosaurs Came with Everything, illustrated by Caldecott award winning artist David Small.
If you liked this mystery, check out:
For something on the sillier side, but every bit as serious about the mysteries, check out:
The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity, the first in the Brixton Brothers Series from the brilliant Mac Barnett, illustrated by the equally amazing Adam Rex.