Fantastic Secret
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

by Barbara O'Connor

Owen Jester lives in a not-much-happenin’ little corner of Georgia, where tending his freshly captured bullfrog, Tooley, is about as interesting as things are likely to get this summer. He and his buddies Travis and Stumpy have all kinds of plans for securing Tooley’s comfort: they’ll build him bigger digs; they’ll partially submerge his chicken-wire mansion in the pond, where fresh food will swim through his cage; they’ll do just about anything but set him free. Viola, a pestering age-mate who lives nearby, incessantly turns up with unwanted advice, eliciting the predictable responses of taunting and evasion from the boys. But Owen quietly begins to suspect that Viola may often be as correct as she is annoying, and when he discovers the Water Wonder 4000, a small recreational submarine that rolled off a train en route from a Canadian manufacturer to a Florida resort, bookish Viola is the one who can actually strategize how to get the thing to the pond for a joyride before adults put the inevitable kibosh on their adventure.

O’Connor masterfully twists the two plot threads—Owen’s gradual realization that Tooley must be released, and the children’s Fitzcarraldo-like mission to move the submarine through brush to pond—into a fully convincing tale pitched perfectly to the upper elementary grades. Any reader who has ever dragged home an injured bird or captured a lightning bug in a jar will fully empathize with Owen’s struggle to overcome his stubborn, misguided sense of ownership. Tension is palpable as O’Connor meticulously traces Tooley’s physical decline, and Owen’s decision to do right by the bullfrog is far from a sure thing. While Owen wrestles with his conscience, the guys face the four-pronged challenge of submarine transport: formulating a workable plan, gathering materials, keeping their efforts secret from adults, and working cooperatively to execute the mission. And that means swallowing buckets of pride in admitting that Viola knows a thing or three about hacksaws, submersibles, and the load-moving strategies of Egyptian pyramid builders.

Owen comes a long way over the summer, especially in learning to tap into the resources of those around him. O’Connor blesses him with a circle of family and friends who can offer him just what he needs at the moment he’s open to receive it. His grandfather, bedridden after what appears to have been a stroke, cannot spout wisdom or advise, but his soft grunts, lopsided smiles, and slightly raised hands provide the encouragement Owen needs to reach his own decision to set Tooley free. Owen’s parents and the grouchy housekeeper, Earlene, stand quietly in the background (well, quite noisily in Earlene’s case), giving Owen space to work out his issues, but ready to reel him in with gentle discipline when he runs amok. Travis and Stumpy, who initially do little more than echo Owen’s aversion to Viola (“‘Go away!’ Owen yelled. . . . ‘Mind your own business,’ Travis snapped. ‘Yeah!’ Stumpy hollered”), prove unexpectedly adept at brainstorming, and after Viola blackmails her way on board their project, they move haltingly from No way/No how, to grudging respect, to total group enthusiasm as the Water Wonder 4000 makes its maiden voyage.

If the characters are familiar in their nyah-nyah banter and determined but rough-edged work ethic, the setting may be eye-opening for many readers. O’Connor fashions a geography of childhood freedom in which kids enjoy the time, space, and relative privacy in which to learn by trial and error how to master their surroundings and expand their relationships. Here young naggers, bumblers, skeptics, pragmatists, and dreamers can figure out how to pull in harness together without the noise of grown-up intervention. For many overprotected and overscheduled children, Owen’s world offers a glimpse of almost unimaginable liberty, and they will surely enjoy visiting a laid-back place where perfectly good kids announce, “I’m going outside,” and perfectly responsible parents reply, “Be back before dark.”

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer


Fantastic Secret

Cover image from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester ©2010 by Greg Call.  Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2010.