The Little Secret by Kate Saunders, illustrated by William Carman, 231 pp, RL 3

Little Secret is FINALLY in paperback! 
Don't miss this out-of-the-ordinary fantasy!

The Little Secret by Kate Suanders is a brilliant new fantasy book for young readers that warrants comparisons with the wonderful writings from over one hundred years ago of E Nesbit and George MacDonald. In fact, part of her dedication reads, "With the assistance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This story was inspired by a traveler's tale near the end of Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship./ "Silver Threads Among the Gold," by E.E. Rexford and H. P. Danks, 1873." The second acknowledgment refers to a song that one character sings to another in the story and was very popular in the United States over one hundred years ago and is now a staple of barbershop quartets. Kate Saunders appreciation of and debt to the past are obvious. In addition to a satisfying fairy story that straddles our world and the diminutive kingdom ruled by the despotic Queen Matilda, we get the delicious illustrations, of Bill Carman, of which there are not nearly enough. However, over at Bill's fascinating blog, where I found this bonus illustration the main characters, you can see all sorts of marvelous paintings, including some fascinating progress shots of the new cover he has illustrated for Polly's Horvath's book The Canning Season.

While the book begins with Staffa, the new girl in school, mistaking Jane, a middle child amongst six brothers and wearer of hand-me-downs ("There isn't money for girls' clothes," she explains) for a boy and continues on for a chapter or two at the Boy Garden, the name Jane's mother has given to their rambling, shabby, boy filled home, this is really a girl's story from start to finish. Staffa, with her antiquated clothes, peculiar manners and announcement to the class that she intends to find a best friend among them, is as much, if not more, of an oddball at school as is Jane with her red hair and boy's wardrobe. Despite a rocky start, the two become fast friends, especially when Staffa has the idea to build an army assault course in the paddock that keeps them all busy, except for little Ted, for days on end. In turn, Staffa invites Jane to tea with her mother at the hotel in King's Lumpton where they are staying. Lady Matilda is a brash, loud, sugar loving woman who imtimidates and intrigues Jane and seems to embarrass Staffa at times with her outlandish stories of life back in their homeland.

While taking tea in their rooms, Jane notices a box sitting on a table at Lady Matilda's side. It is, "about the size of a small bedside cabinet, perfectly square and covered all over with paintings so wonderful that Jane felt she could have stared at the forever - castles, mountains, deep forests bathed in sunlights. The colors were so rich and bright that it almost hurt to look at them." When Jane's parents agree to let her travel with Staffa and her mother to their estate in the north, she begins to wonder about the box, Staff and her mother. After a long car ride, a ferry ride and an overnight stay on a barren island off the coast of Scotland, Jane's questions are answered. The three, with the box carefully strapped into a harness worn by Lady Matilda, hike out to a remote spot on the island and stop for a lunch of truffles. The box is placed in front of a pile of rocks and, after following Jane's instructions very carefully, a gold ring is placed on Jane's finger and, with an agonizing pain that feels like the shrinking ring is going to snap the bone of her finger, Jane passes out. When she wakes, Jane finds that they have all shrunk to a size that makes ants seem threatening. With Lady Matilda in the lead, they head off through the forest of grass to the base of the box which, when opened by a tap of Jane's gold ring, reveals the Royal Palace in the Kingdom of Eck.

The second half of the book is taken up with the strife that threatens to destroy the Kingdom of Eck, which is populated by Eckers - curly headed creatures with triangle shaped faces and pot bellies who are "another race entirely, mostly goblin with a dash of field mouse" while the Royal Family come from a race of elves and must marry full humans or their race will die out. The Eckers, treated horribly by Queen Matilda, are constantly revolting and attacking the castle - thus Staffa's skill at making an army assault course at the Boy Garden. On top of this, the Queen has brought Jane to be the new bride of her melancholy son, King Quarles. Jane, her Ecker maid Twilly, and eventually Staffa get caught up in the plot against the palace and find themselves riding a bee named Fatilda, attacking the prison fortress, chased by wasps and hiding under the stage in Norah Hall - Home of the Famous Dancing Orphans.

Kate Suanders creates a rich, miniature world where slugs are farmed like cows, sugar is so rare that it is used as currency and where spiders are ridden and raced like horses. The Kingdom of Eck is imbued with so many enchanting details that you almost wish the book was longer. As is it, it is the perfect length and tone for a reader who is just beginning to sink her teeth into longer chapter books. Although The Little Secret is new and currently only available in hardcover, Colorful jacket art and intricate end papers make it well worth the price. This is the kind of keeper book that Aunties and Grannies give as gifts to the little girls in their lives, with something loving and memorable written inside.

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