The Secret Keeper, by Anna Grossnickle Hines

On the eighth day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a book about the secrets we keep!

The Secret Keeper
The Secret Keeper, by Anna Grossnickle Hines
(1990, Greenwillow Books, ISBN 0-688-08945-3)

Little Joshua is feeling left out of all the Christmas secrets at his house until Grandma comes to the rescue with an idea to get Joshua involved in some secret-keeping of his own.

Anna Grossnickle Hines is a relatively prolific children’s author and illustrator (she illustrates the new Curious George books in addition to writing and illustrating her own) who has branched out from her original colored pencil roots to now sometimes using quilts and digital illustration for the books she creates. (She and her family recently founded appropo, a company dedicated to creating picture book apps.) The Secret Keeper, however, is an earlier venture, done in watercolor and colored pencil, and is in traditional picture book format. It tells the story of a little boy—probably three or four judging from the fact that he still uses a booster seat at the table—who is tired of all the secrets his family is keeping from him as they prepare for Christmas. The last straw is when Grandma arrives to stay for Christmas and share his room, bringing in a bag filled with “Christmas secrets,” and Joshua proclaims that he hates Christmas because there are too many secrets! Grandma understands how he feels and helps Joshua create secrets of his own for his family. (He even surprises Grandma by making her a gift when she’s busy helping his mom!) The whole family is happily surprised on Christmas morning, and his sisters even consider letting him in on their secrets next year because he kept his own secrets “so well that [they] didn’t even know [he] had any.” Joshua, however, has decided that he likes having Christmas secrets of his own.  The story is told in first person with no introduction of the narrator, requiring the use of both text and picture clues to figure out what exactly is going on; it is important to understand his age, at least, to know why he is being left out of the secrets. The necessarily secretive nature of the events of the story also create the need for a goodly amount of inference and, in my opinion, raises the comprehension  level necessary above the unassisted ability of the age group for whom it is intended.  However, the somewhat larger that usual font suggests that the book is possibly meant for young independent readers who are, in fact, older than the narrator but may still identify with him.

The illustrations are done with simple realism of the characters and minimal background. In fact, you only see the suggestion of walls or floor based on the people and the furniture or other items in perspective; once, there is a doorknob with the door fading away around it, and a sign taped on the door to the garage hangs in blank white space. The colors are softly bright and the few pieces of furniture, the Christmas tree, and gifts are drawn with great attention to realistic detail. Something about the dress and hairstyles of the characters makes them seem somewhat dated, but that feeling is minimal and probably wouldn’t be noticed by a young reader. (I, however, am strongly reminded of the cover illustration from the 3rd edition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting
with the coloration and the way the characters are dressed…) The scenes where Grandma and Joshua are making the gifts for the rest of the family are cleverly done so you see just enough of the gift around the back or over the shoulder of the characters to see some of the supplies they are using, but the reader, like the rest of the family, is kept in the dark about what they are actually making until the gifts are opened at the end of the book.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I had to do a lot of explaining to GirlChild about what was going on during the story because her experience is limited and there weren’t enough clues in the pictures and text for her to guess what exactly was happening. She does understand Christmas secrets, however, and at the beginning of this Christmas season, she was just as unhappy about them as Joshua was at the beginning of this book. I’ve tried to share some with her this year (mostly about BoyChild’s gifts since he wouldn’t understand anyway if she lets something slip) so she’ll feel excited about them instead of grumpy, and, just like in the book, it seems to have worked. She’s still not particularly good at keeping secrets, but it makes her feel important to have some, and she doesn’t really notice when she’s let something slip, so it’s a good thing I’m still careful about it! When we finished this book, she decided she wanted to give Daddy the elephant toy we’d bought at IKEA earlier this month just so she’d have a secret. (What she doesn’t know is that we bought that elephant for her! *winkwink* Shh!)

My family has always been big on Christmas secrets (we are even very good about telling Christmas lies with complete believability despite the fact that we try not to practice lying the rest of the year!), so this book was fun for me. I love the feeling of being secretive and surprising someone with something he or she didn’t expect but really likes, and I think GirlChild feels the same way. I hope to make many opportunities for her to share the joy of surprising someone with a heartfelt gift to show her love!

Additional books:

NOTE: This book is out of print, so I had to scan the cover of my library copy to have an image. The link to the book on Amazon is under the image. Also, the information I included about the author was gleaned from the Amazon biography page linked to her name in that paragraph.

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