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Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets
Written by Gennifer Choldenko 
(Wendy Lamb Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

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⭐︎Starred Review – Booklist

Lizzie Kennedy, 13, lives in a house on her aunt and uncle’s fashionable Nob Hill estate with her widowed father and her brother, Billy, 16, once her best friend, but now surly and secretive. Their beloved servants, Jing and Maggy, also reside with them. A brief prologue gives the readers some insight into Lizzie’s world at the dawn of the 20th century and the ominous developments to come:

 

“In the Palace Hotel, electric lights blaze as ladies in shimmering gowns
and gentlemen in black waistcoats waltz in a ballroom gilded with gold.

In the bay, a steamer from Honolulu is fumigated, scrubbed, and
smoked … and given entry to the port of San Francisco.

At the dock … rats slip off the ship. They scurry onto the wharf
and climb the sewers to Chinatown …”

Thanks to her aunt and uncle’s wealth, Lizzie is able to live a fairly privileged life. However, her strict and proper Aunt Hortense insists that she attend finishing school. Lizzie is not interested in becoming a society lady. She prefers science to etiquette, and, much to Aunt Hortense’s chagrin, enjoys assisting her doctor father with his house calls.

Stories begin to surface about the large numbers of dead rats found in Chinatown, and soon that community is quarantined. Despite her father’s and her uncle’s insistence that there is no plague and the quarantine is unjustified, Lizzie has her doubts. One day she discovers that Jing, the family’s cook, has smuggled his son Noah out of Chinatown and has secretly hidden him in the servants’ quarters. However Jing is now missing. Did he get caught up in the quarantine … or something worse? Stunned by the discovery that Jing has a secret life, Lizzie promises the frightened boy, Noah, that she’ll help keep his secret and try to find out what has happened to his father.

As dead rats and plague rumors mount, Lizzie boldly attempts to determine the veracity of the plague rumors and secretly undertakes some dangerous trips to Chinatown to find Jing. Her friendship with Noah and her trips to Chinatown, help her realize the gender, racial, and class inequalities which exist in her society. When Lizzie realizes she can’t find Jing on her own and illness strikes close to home, help comes from some surprising quarters.

Like her earlier Newbery award-winning work, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko’s middle grade novel, Chasing Secrets, is a wonderful coming-of-age-story that blends historical fiction, mystery, and humor, while providing a fascinating glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past. Complex topics (some sadly similar to today’s concerns) of inequality, medical science, and immunology are made accessible to young readers through Lizzie’s experiences.

The author, a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, concludes with a note about the historical background, a chronology of the plague, and notes which provide information for further reading. Visit Choldenko’s website for more information about her work and find a fascinating Writing Timeline and Educator’s Guide for Chasing Secrets too.

Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Putting The Monkeys To Bed by Gennifer Choldenko

PUTTING THE MONKEYS TO BED
Written by Gennifer Choldenko
Illustrated by Jack E. Davis
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $16.99, Ages 3-5)

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     If you thought getting your children to go to sleep wasn’t difficult enough, try your hand at Putting The Monkeys to Bed. This new picture book by popular children’s author, Gennifer Choldenko, is a whimsical tale of nighttime shenanigans started by young Sam’s active imagination and perpetuated by a trio of plush merry-making monkeys.

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Interior artwork from Putting The Monkeys to Bed by Gennifer Choldenko with illustrations by Jack E. Davis, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ©2015.

     As is often the case with so many little ones, going to bed can be a chore when there’s still so much to think about:

Do pirates sleep with their eye patches on?

Do fish go to bed in their bathing suits?

Where do baseball players sleep at night?

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Interior artwork from Putting The Monkeys to Bed by Gennifer Choldenko with illustrations by Jack E. Davis, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ©2015.

… and so much fun still to be had. But when the day begins to catch up with him, and Sam is ready to call it a night, it seems the simians can’t switch off. Even calm inducing in and out breathing turns into ping pong singing for the primate pals eager to play the night away. Davis’s light-hearted illustrations capture the antics of the monkeys as they try everything in their power to keep Sam awake, my favorite being the one where the monkeys mimic the ubiquitous Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil statues. Eventually though, the monkeys succumb to some serious snuggling and a bedtime story read in a whisper by the weary Sam as “Arms cuddle close. Covers nestle round. Heavy heads sink into soft pillows.”

     Parents, if you and your kids are still awake after this wonderful wind down, check out the humorous author’s note at the end with answers to Sam’s questions posed above. I also recommend going back through each spread to enjoy all the details Davis has included. Then, if yawns and heavy eyelids are still not evident, you can always try singing a lullaby, but somehow I think that won’t be necessary. Look for satisfied smiles all around as little ones drift off to dreamland when you share Choldenko’s Putting The Monkeys to Bed tonight.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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