Review: The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford

The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford. Scholastic, 2012. Currently Available.

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction (with a bit of fantasy-ish)

Face Value: Classic, standard middle grade. This cover doesn’t grab me and scream “Read Me Now” but it’s totally classic upper elementary cover art, and I can’t complain about that. The tree branches, the scrawled title on notebook paper – it captures the intent of the book and will appeal to readers of both genders.

Does it Break the Slate? Yes. The Secret Tree captures an incredibly recognizable moment in life, when your world, your friendships, and your perspective are shifting, whether you want them to or not. In Minty, Standiford has written a Slatebreaking character who has to make the shift from childhood to whatever comes next. She isn’t sure if she wants to, but she finds a way to grow up without losing herself in the process. Plus, it features Roller Derby, possibly the most Slatebreaking of all athletic activities!

Who would we give it to? Kids in elementary school who are just on the verge of pre-teenness, who might be ready for all that brings and might not be. Minty’s journey will resonate deeply with that age group.

Review: Minty is a girl on the verge of something. And she doesn’t like it. About to turn eleven, she has her world figured out – she loves her family, her best friend, and the roller derby. She’s Minty Fresh and Paz is Pax A. Punch and together they can take on the world.

But they are also in that summer – that weird summer before middle school when everything starts to change. Paz doesn’t seem interested in the same things that she used to be – or in Minty anymore. The neighborhood, which used to seem familiar and comforting, is suddenly full of secrets. Secrets that Minty finds out about through a magical tree. Secrets like

“I put a curse on my enemy. And it’s working”

“I’m betraying my best friend in a terrible way.”

“No one loves me except my goldfish.”

Through the secret tree, Minty meets Raymond, a new boy with secrets of his own. When they team up to match the secrets to their rightful keeper, they find out a lot about each other, the neighborhood, and what it means to grow up – even if you don’t want to.

Eleven is a pivotal age, and we get a glimpse into Minty’s world at such a transitional moment. It’s one that most of us – adults and kids – will relate to, on one end or the other. Personally, I was more of a Minty when I was eleven. I wasn’t ready to take on being a teenager, and I had a lot of anxiety about my world changing around me. But I had friends like Paz, who were ready to make that leap, even if the people around you aren’t. It’s such a difficult time in your life, trying to figure out who you are and what you want. From a Slatebreaking point of view, it’s essential. This is a moment of self-determination, of deciding that you’re ready to grow up. The empathy with which Standiford shares Minty’s emotional response to all of this makes her incredibly relatable and we really see this character start to define herself and grow up.

I loved that the friendships are legitimately complicated too. Minty and Paz are both figuring out what it means to grow up, and we see them both make mistakes throughout the course of the book. “I’m betraying my best friend in a terrible way,” was Paz’s secret, but there are times when it could have been Minty’s. It could have been either of their older sisters (also best friends). Friends sometimes hurt each other, but Standiford has created a world where this happens, and they can also find a way to forgive each other. So often girl friendships at this age are presented as toxic and catty – it’s nice to see a portrayal that is this rich and complicated and meaningful.

If I didn’t already like this book, the roller derby would have put me over the edge. I love the roller derby. I go pretty regularly to watch bouts of the Phoenix Derby Dames (my favorite team is the Coffin Draggers, but they’re all pretty fabulous), and I think that it’s so fun and tough and fantastically female-centric. Minty’s love of the roller derby was just another detail that proves the fabulous Slatebreaker she is going to be.

The book isn’t perfect. While the smaller issues were handled with the gravity and emotional resonance they deserved, some of the book’s bigger issues were wrapped up all too easily. Raymond’s home life, in particular, is resolved with a heavy hand of magical ease. But while the solutions might come a little too easily for my adult sensibilities, I did feel that the emotional resolution behind both big and small ideas was crafted with a delicate and believable voice. And that made some of the implausibility work, when I look back and think about the bigger picture.

Ultimately, this is a great middle grade novel, that already has a classic feel to it. Standiford’s YA books, especially How to Say Goodbye in Robot resonated deeply with me as well, and I’m pleased that her middle grade work is equally good.

Reviewed from library copy.

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