The middle grades Secret Series by Psuedonymous Bosch: The Name of This Book is Secret (2008); If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (2009); This Book is Not Good for You (2010); This Isn’t What It Looks Like (2011); and You Have to Stop This (2012), in order. Illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Published by Little, Brown. We bought this popular series in a set, otherwise we probably would have stopped reading after the first one. As it was, I read it out loud to my kids and it took us several months. There is a new series, The Bad Books series, which just began with Bad Magic and is about one of the main characters from The Secret Series’s younger brothers when he is older. They are not completely connected; more like a spin-off.
I was surprised that in the end, the kids and I wanted to know what happened. In fact, most nights they were all like, “Read to us!” But then they didn’t pay the best of attention. I don’t know how much of this had to do with the particular series. Most of the time, we were (all) slightly bored (as opposed to when we read The Chronicles of Narnia).
The author obviously goes by a pseudonym, like Lemony Snicket, and it is widely accepted that he is Raphael Simon. The pseudonym is not only a clever one, but it fits the whole idea of the series: that he is a participant in the story revealing the details of a top secret organization through the use of fake names and false places, and that because of his revelations, his life (and ours!) is in danger.
I’m going to generously start with the best part about this series: the idea. What I shared above: that this is a secret person revealing the secrets of a secret society and putting everyone’s lives in danger… great idea! Love it! And Bosch really carries the idea through every single book, bringing the reader back to the “reality” behind the story over and over and in such clever ways. And with the new addition of Write This Book, he loops the reader in even more. (We have not read/written that one, but I think it’s super clever, especially as related to the series.)
The other best part of this series: the extras. It’s not just a novel. There are many footnotes (which are not great for read-aloud, but otherwise…), asides, blanked-out information, codes, illustrations, a few forms, nontraditional pages, and (except for in book 5) long, interactive appendices. Again, this all works especially well with the idea of the series and how strong the narrator is a part of the experience, himself. Plus, this is where the humor comes in. And plenty of actual education with the humor.
But here’s where it all starts to head south. While the cover illustrations are eye-catching and acceptable, the illustrations inside are terrible. Perhaps you would argue that it’s some sort of style, but even my kids would often look at the drawings out of the corners of their eyes, as if to say, “Mom, I draw hands better than that!” It was not uncommon for one of us to ask, “Is that supposed to be Cass?” or even, “What is that supposed to be?”
Let’s just come right out and say that the writing is so-so. There are definitely glimmers of imagination, but the actual writing has moments of real stink and long swaths of mediocrity. Let me drag Rowling into this for the first of three times in this review: Harry Potter is also only so-so in the writing department. But Harry Potter has amazing characters and impeccable plotting. I can not say that for The Secret Series, and you will see what I mean, below.
We’ll just keep wading into my complaints, then. Because, despite the popularity of the series and the great reviews, I just can not say I enjoyed these books, and neither can my ten- or seven-year-old. Let’s start with fact that Bosch picked the hardest names ever to read (aloud or in your head). It gets super annoying to always be reading “Cass asked” this and “Cass asked” that, and oh-my-goodness Max-Ernest couldn’t have a nickname? And how many times do you want to say Yo-Yogi in one conversation? Try maybe once.
So maybe that’s a nit-picky thing, but this is standard: Bosch loves those adverbs a LOT too much. Now, I can take some adverbs–unlike some writing and reading snobs–when they are well-placed and sorta rare. But I got so irritated with the repetition of sentence structure coupled with unnecessary adverbs that I read a page out to my husband after the kids were in bed and I was practically in tears over the state of popular fiction. (Sorry, I don’t know where it is anymore but I think it was in book four). For two pages, almost every paragraph was “Whatever, something, yadda yadda” whomever spoke/said/asked/yelled blah-blah-blah-ly. In the words of Stephen King, “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” Thank you!
In fact, I just opened the last book up to a random page to find some inspiration for the review, and that one random page included this gem (sarcasm) of a conversation:
“‘…It’s not for sale!’ said Grandpa Larry automatically.
“‘Then what’s it doing here?” the customer asked angrily.
“‘Fine, twist my arm, five dollars,’ said Grandpa Larry grumpily.”
And tacked on later, just for kicks:
“‘Well, I didn’t know you were moving!’ said Cass accusatorially.”
(which is not even a word).
And as a reader, I am forever noticing writers’ pet words. One of Rowling’s is “pant.” I recently read a book where everything was “superfluous.” I have these words, myself. One of them is “gaze.” If my characters would just quit gazing here and gazing there and gazing everywhere! Unfortunately, Bosch’s pet words are like ten-dollar words that become obnoxious because they are so obvious. But once again, I find myself being a bit nit-picky. Here’s something a little more substantial: Bosch falls prey to the over-realistic conversation. What I mean is, readers don’t really want to know every time a character hesitates, stutters, or “um”s. It’s tempting to write that way, I know, but it, too, is obnoxious.
And what the heck is up with Max-Ernest’s family?!? It’s sort of interesting even while it’s seriously uncomfortable, but why they heck bring them together and then rip them apart again!? Weirdest plot decision ever.
I am going to guess that part of what happened to this series is what happens to plenty of series. I bet that Bosch wrote the first book with the rest of the series in his head, but that his publisher hung some deadlines over him. Therefore each subsequent book got less-seriously edited and was rushed to press. Around the third book in a series like this, you start to see ever-more glaring typos at an alarming rate. It’s sad. Plot pieces start to unravel. You wind up with scenes where you are unclear if a character has left or what the new guy’s name is, and then you spot some contradictory information. It’s just a matter of rushed editing and it happens all the time. It even happened with Harry Potter (and there’s the third and final mention).
Honestly, though, Bosch never does a great job with characters. It’s like he has great ideas, but he doesn’t have that natural ability to make a reader love a character or to ease into them without much work. I can’t say the kids or I cared about a single character by the end of the series. In fact, I was more interested in a few of the villains, and we didn’t really see that much of them. I found Cass, Max-Ernest, and Yo-Yogi to be basically flat. Sorry, but I am a character writer and a character reader, so this is a big deal for me.
The plot, on the other hand, is okay. You get it. The senses thing might be a bit unnecessary, but something’s always happening and it has something to do with friendship, the pre-teen years, or the Terces Society and their nemeses the Midnight Sun. Then again, I didn’t find the plot to flow very well, especially in the over-arching department. Specifically, the plot doesn’t ratchet up over time or build toward one big crescendo. It’s like a number of small denouements, which, I bet you can guess, is not tremendously fulfilling.
And while we are on the topic, the ending pretty much sucked. I won’t include any spoilers, but the Big Secret–the whole crux of the series–is super anti-climactic. If you can even figure out what it is. Because, honestly, my kids were like, “What, Mom?” And you know, the whole time you’re reading, that the revelation of the Secret better be darn near perfect, and the Secret itself, amazing. But… that never happened. The bad guys never really got what was coming to them. There was no final confrontation. And in trying to cleverly not wrap anything up cuz that’s like real life, Bosch really didn’t wrap up anything.
The moral of this review? Your kids might want to read it because every one else is reading it. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for them to read. They might get a kick out of parts of it. But I can’t justify recommending the series to anyone, young or old. It’s a great idea that just falls flat in a number of ways. It’s not awful, it’s just not great, wrote Devon emphatically.