Secret Letters From 0 to10 by Susie Morgenstern, translated by Gill Rosner, 137pp RL 4

First reviewed on 11/16/08, Secret Letters from 0 + 10 left a great impression on me. A wonderful, quiet story, Morgenstern's writing is superlative. Your children will remember this book long into adulthood.

Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern is a gem of a book. It turned up on the shelves of the bookstore one day and I was drawn to the cover, its length and the fact that is is set in France. After reading the author information in the back I learned that Morgentstern is an American who was born in New Jersey and has lived in France for more than thirty years. It is interesting to note that she does not translate her own work. Published in 1996, Secret Letters from 0 to 10 won France's equivalent of the Newbery Award, as well as awards in America. With its large cast of unique characters and a profound, emotional story folded neatly into brief chapters, I am reminded of Polly Horvath's remarkable young adult novels Everything on a Waffle and My One Hundred Adventures. Morgenstern has written over thirty books for children in French, some of which are available in translation and look like they promise to be every bit as wonderful as Secret Letters from 0 to 10, especially The Book of Coupons, also a must read, and the only other book by Morgenstern available in English in the US that is in print. 

Morgenstern is a miniaturist and can create a complete world filled with many lives in a few pages. When we first meet our protagonist, Ernest Morlaisse, he is a ten year old boy living with his eighty year old grandmother, named, but never called, Precious. His small, circumscribed world also includes Germaine, who, although almost as old as his grandmother, serves as their housekeeper and cook. Grandmother never leaves the house, which is without telephone and television, and Germaine feeds the family a regimented diet of simple foods which include a snack of an apple and a single cracker everyday after school and soup every night for dinner. Ernest, who cannot hide the fact that he is quite handsome, has chances to break out of this routine but is afraid to try something he has never experienced, such as the cookies that his admiring female classmates regularly leave on his desk. Ernest does not realize how quiet and empty his life is until a new student in class, Victoria de Montardent, takes the empty seat next to his. Despite her immediate insertion of herself into Ernest's life, Victoria seems only charming and right in everything she says and does, even when she tells anyone who will listen that she and Ernest are in love and will marry in thirteen years, eight months and two days. Victoria never comes off as precocious or sassy, as some characters in books popular in the States can be.

Where Ernest and his life are quiet and bland, Victoria and her life are exuberant and overflowing. After showering Ernest with an avalanche of questions, most about things he had never even bothered to think about ("Have you got a collection?" only brings to mind "the fifty-seven stairs up to his apartment, or the number of steps he took on his way to school) Victoria says, "I've asked enough questions for the moment. Don't you have any for me?" Knowing that he shouldn't ask a question that he does not want to know the answer to, Ernest asks how she came to be named Victoria.  He was expecting:

a history lesson on some British queen, but she answered, "Because I was born after they had had twelve boys. My parents wanted a girl so much that they tried thirteen times . . . and finally they had me. My name means 'victory.'"

Victoria, who is collecting the aluminum wrapping from chocolate bars and hopes to have 2,000 by the year 2000, is surprised by the many foods Ernest has never tasted. Upon hearing that he has never tried chili con carne, she says, "Don't worry, Ernest, I'll take care of your food education, but it would help if you decided to like chocolate." The doors that Victoria opens for Ernest, who in turn opens for his grandmother, are delightful, funny and touching to read about. And it is through this seemingly innocent, every day occurrence of eating that Victoria does educate Ernest and open up his world outside of his his home with Precious. When Germain takes ill and the new housekeeper arrives, things begin to change inside his home as well, again through the magical, transformative medium of food.
While there is a distinct French feel to this book, it is never jarring or even outstanding. While Ten year old Victoria's conviction of her connection to Ernest and their love for each other, and the conniving Elodie's attempts to win him over, seem more teenage in nature, they never felt unnatural or uncomfortable. And who am I to question the French when it comes to love and romance? The cultural and everyday differences flow through the story and only add to the richly detailed differences in of the lives of the characters. Victoria's thriteen brothers, named for the twelve tribes of Israel, ranging in age from twenty-two to six months, and make for some very funny dialogue. Most moving, though, is Ernest's writing. A top student in school, he shares his innermost thoughts in essays sprinkled throughout the book and, along with the letters, had me in tears more than once. "Couscous Sunday" begins like this:

I have never been to a restaurant in my life. I have never been out on a Sunday. I have never eaten couscous. My grandmother has never been outside her apartment for as long as I have known her.

It is a great day when a "never" is erased. But when three "nevers" are erased in one day and are replaced by three "first times," that day is three times as great.

Yesterday, I went out with Grandmother to the restaurant on the corner to eat couscous.

And what about those letters from 0 to 10? Too much about them would give away the many surprises in this short but wonderful book. I can tell you that, in the beginning of the book we learn that Precious' father died in World War I and her husband died in World War II before Gaspard, Ernest's father, was born, and she spends much of her time in bed reading letters from the warfront. Sunday afternoons especially are reserved for "reading" an encrypted letter from her father, Adrian, that she keeps locked in a box. However, none of these are the letters of the title. I was almost done with the book before I stopped to wonder what these letters from 0 to 10 are. And, magically, at that point the story answered me with a poignant revelation that made perfect sense.

Readers who enjoyed Secret Letters from 0 to 10 might also like Saffy's Angel by British author Hilary McKay and is the first in a series of books set about the colorfully messy Casson family and their children, all of whom (except for Saffron) are named after hues from the color chart. When Saffron discovers she is adopted, she secretly plans to find a way from England to Italy to retrieve the secret legacy her mother left behind. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass, while considerably longer than Secret Letters from 0 to 10, is also a story in which a quiet, sheltered boy and an exuberant, lively girl experience life changing situations and encounter the many philosophies and belief systems that people choose in their search for the keys. 

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