When the first book in the Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch was published in 2007, it was shortly after the final book in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I had followed from the beginning. I remember seeing the first book, The Name of This Book Is Secret, in bookstores and being somewhat intrigued. But when the next few books in the series started showing up, with titles like If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and This Book Is Not Good For You, I wondered how similar this series would be to Unfortunate Events. It just seemed too familiar: the pseudonymous author who warns you not to read the book, a couple of kids who are up against a mysterious secret society and vast conspiracies … did I really want to start that again?
It turns out I should have.
Ok, it’s hard not to dwell on the comparisons between Bosch and Snicket — both are intrusive narrators who become prominent characters in the books themselves. Both warn you time and again not to continue reading the books (though, I should point out, for somewhat different reasons). Both like to tell you what words means, using slightly off-kilter definitions. But despite an obvious debt to Snicket’s work, I think Bosch has really made the paranoid narrator voice his own, and the Secret Series turned out to be quite a different kettle of fish (a phrase which here means “very fun to read”).
So here’s the rough outline, without revealing too many details. Cass and Max-Ernest (not their real names, of course) are both middle-schoolers. Cass is a survivalist, always studying and preparing for any disaster that could befall. Max-Ernest is an extremely logical boy who nonetheless wants to be a magician or comedian, or both, despite an inability to tell jokes. The two of them stumble upon a dead magician’s diary and are drawn into a larger world of secrets.
Bosch throws in a variety of things in his stories throughout the series: the very first chapter (after the intro) is entirely composed of Xs. It’s secret, you see, and he simply can’t tell you those things. Sometimes he jumps around in chapter numbers — going backwards for a countdown, or using negative numbers, or skipping some chapters entirely. Sometimes the books are interrupted by Bosch’s further warnings not to continue reading them, or quizzes to see how well you’d do in a secret society, or emergency drills about what to do if somebody spots you reading the book.
The books also have appendices, which contain recipes, explanations, codes and decoders, and other miscellaneous bits of information that may pertain to the books. There are interviews with Bosch (conducted by himself), magic tricks, how to say “hello” in a hundred different languages, and more.
If it sounds like it’s a big jumble of seemingly disparate things, you’re right — it is. But it works. I think any reader who loved the Lemony Snicket books would really enjoy the series — particularly those who liked the way Unfortunate Events started off but felt it dragged on just a little long without giving enough answers. The Secret Series is just five books long, and Bosch keeps up a pretty quick pace. Sure, each one does have the kids facing a sinister enemy (and overcoming obstacles to defeat them), but you also do feel that (1) you’re finding out a little more about the secrets in each book, and (2) the characters are developing and changing as the series develops. It’s pretty cool the way that things that happen early on in the series have repercussions later on, and this is especially impressive in light of the fact that Bosch didn’t have a definite plan when he first started writing the series.
The books are appropriate for middle-grade readers, though I should warn that there is some creepy stuff that happens throughout the series. The villains are a bit nastier than Count Olaf. For one example (minor spoiler alert): at one point some of the bad guys describe their plan to vacuum out a boy’s brain fluids through his nose, hearkening back to the Egyptians’ process of mummification. In another book there is a humanoid creature who appears to eat villains, so there are some references to cannibalism (and whether or not it’s truly cannibalism if the creature is not really a human himself). At any rate, the series does traverse some darker waters, so you may want to preview the books before giving them to younger readers. Middle-schoolers and up probably shouldn’t have too much trouble with it.
I read the first book before my interview with Pseudonymous Bosch at Wordstock, and he made the comment to me outside of the interview that, really, as an adult, I didn’t necessarily need to read the rest of the books, as they’re meant for kids. However, I really got into the series, and ended up reading the next four books over the past few weeks, and I’m glad I did. They’re fun and quite geeky, with a lot of random facts and trivia incorporated into them. There’s a bit of fantasy and magic involved, but a lot of the fun is just watching these two kids working on figuring out the Secret and keeping it away from the bad guys.
All right: I can’t say much more without starting to get into specifics of the plot and giving things away. If you’re looking for an excellent mystery-adventure series for middle graders (or, heck, adults who like kids’ books), don’t overlook the Secret Series. Start with the first one, The Name of This Book Is Secret, and see if you and your kids aren’t hooked by the end of it.
And just for reference, here’s the order of the series:
- The Name of This Book Is Secret
- If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
- This Book Is Not Good for You
- This Isn’t What It Looks Like
- You Have to Stop This
Note that the first four books are now available in paperback, but the fifth was just released in September and is currently in hardcover only. For more about the series and Pseudonymous Bosch, visit his website.
Disclosure: Little, Brown provided copies of the books for review.