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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

Fridays Featuring Flintridge – New Novels

Catherine Linka shares her picks for …

New Novels for Young Readers

This fall, there are several new novels for young readers that offer the flavor and feel of classics. I read these books before they were published, looking forward to the day when I could hand them to readers and say, “I think you’ll love this.” Pick these up for holiday gifts for readers aged 8-13.

THE SPINDLERS ($16.99, Harper Collins) by Lauren Oliver

This reminds me a bit of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Beautifully written, with a lush and dramatic setting “Below.” Liza realizes that her little brother’s soul was stolen in his sleep by Spindlers, spider-like creatures, so she goes Below to get it back. Liza must befriend Mirabella, a tricky rat, to find her brother and the evil queen who holds his soul.  Great read aloud with action and themes of friendship and family. For independent readers 9+.

THE HUMMING ROOM ($16.99, Feiwel & Friends)
by Ellen Potter

Inspired by THE SECRET GARDEN, this was a huge hit with our Advance Reader Club of 5th and 6th graders. Roo loses her parents and goes to live with her reclusive uncle in what was once a Children’s Hospital on an island in the Saint Lawrence river. There’s a mystery inside the walls of this old building and Roo sets out to uncover it. (9+)

SUMMER AND BIRD ($16.99, Dutton Juvenile) by Katherine Catmull

Summer and her little sister, Bird, wake up to find their parents have disappeared into the woods. Searching the woods for their mom and dad, Bird follows a birdsong to a strange and wintery land where the birds await the return of the missing swan queen. While THE SPINDLERS is dramatic, SUMMER AND BIRD is dreamlike. Read it before bed. 9+.

LIAR &  SPY ($15.99, Wendy Lamb Books) by Rebecca Stead

A great story for kids who befriend someone who may not be honest with them. Two boys, neighbors in a NYC apartment building, team up to spy on a resident they suspect of a crime. By the author of the Newbery-award winner, WHEN YOU REACH ME. Perfect for mother-daughter book clubs. (9+)  NOTE:  Read the GRWR review of this book by middle grade author Kristen Kittscher by clicking here.

KEEPING SAFE THE STARS ($16.99, Putnam Juvenile)
by Sheila O’Connor

For fans of Kate DiCamillo or Deb Wiles. A beautifully written story about a girl trying to keep her siblings together when their guardian gets sick. Strong themes of family loyalty, leadership, challenge of honesty.  Pride, the eldest girl is a terrific lead character. This funny and sweet story is perfect for mother-daughter book clubs. (9+)

Please visit the Flintridge Bookstore today to pick up your copy of these great books, buy gifts, enjoy their extensive selection of other great reads  and relax over a great cup of coffee.  Also visit the website at www.flintridgebooks.com to keep up-to-date with story times, author events and other exciting special events.

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