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Book Review: The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Art-of-Secrets-copyHigh school sophomore Saba Khan, her parents, and her young brother Salman are at her school team tennis match when their apartment catches fire and they lose everything they own. Saba and her family are not rich. Her parents came to the U.S. from Pakistan and are working hard to provide a good life for Saba and Salman, but her father earns a modest living working in a Chicago factory packing boxes. They are a close family of devout Muslims living in a friendly immigrant community. When the fire turns out to be a result of arson, they are confused – they have no enemies, only friends.

When Saba’s classmates at her prestigious but struggling private school (which she attends on scholarship) band together to hold an auction to provide support for the family, they are incredibly grateful. Many people in the school community have provided immediate support, including clothing and a temporary apartment. Her classmates and fellow outsiders Kevin and Kendra Spoon take the lead in the auction, even going so far as to scour neighborhood alleys for furniture and other items people have thrown out to add to the auction. During these efforts, they find a notebook of sketches that turns out to be the work of famous Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, worth approximately $350,000 to $450,000. Kevin and Kendra, along with their mother, insist on including the notebook in the auction for the Khan’s, but are persuaded to at least take out insurance on it until the sale.

When the notebook goes missing a few weeks before the auction, everyone is a suspect. Was it the school’s principal, who obviously wanted the money from the sale to go to the school? Or the art teacher who was acting suspiciously? Was it one of the students, or one of the many curious onlookers who came to see the notebook before the auction?

Told from multiple points of view, through Saba’s journal, her father’s visits with his imam, and multiple interviewers including a newspaper reporter, police officers, and insurance investigators, James Klise has created a detailed and intricate view of the workings of a small private high school. The theme of ‘outsiderdom’ is carried throughout the novel. Saba’s outsider status, due to both her presence as a scholarship student and her family’s religious faith and immigrant background, is explored throughout the novel. From suspicion that her family somehow set the fire, to the principal’s obvious prejudice and lack of empathy for her family, to the incredibly creepy way her suddenly interested new boyfriend Steve refers to her as ‘exotic,’ we see Saba’s life (beyond her close knit family) as she struggles to belong in her school and community. Kevin and Kendra Spoon are outsiders in a different way. With their all-american blond good looks and high powered businesswoman mother, they should naturally fit in to the school community. Unfortunately, their mother’s job has had them move frequently, and they are newcomers to the school. In fact, we find out that one reason they have thrown themselves into the auction to support Saba’s family is to ingratiate themselves with the school community. An additional outsider point of view is provided by the foreign exchange student who is living with Steve’s family for a year. He is immediately suspect when the art goes missing simply due to his ‘otherness.’

In addition to being a brilliantly crafted mystery, this novel is a brilliantly told story of the personalities and prejudices of a small high school community. I highly recommend including this in any collection serving students in 7th grade and up.

The Art of Secrets is a 2015 Edgar Award winner for Best Young Adult Novel. A copy of the novel was provided for review by the publisher.

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