Big Picture

Book cover: A Black girl in a sweater vest stands in front of a library.The Secret Library

By Kekla Magoon

Children’s fantasy often gives both its characters and readers an Other space: a magical world, whether it be Narnia, Neverland, or Hogwarts, that brings adventure and shine to boring, lackluster childhoods consumed by boring, lackluster (and sometimes downright neglectful) adults. Eventually, by fate or by happenstance, children return to their homes of origin, forever changed by their adventure, but back, effectively, where they began. While there’s comfort in the predictable structure, the ultimate message can feel a bit stifling and adult—sure, have some fun, kids, but be sure to come home ready to return to responsibility, with the yearning for adventure now put to rest. Not so in this month’s Big Picture; while The Secret Library fulfills the first part of that structure with plenty of swashbuckling, time traveling, and fantastical action, it dramatically subverts it last minute, trusting its young readers with complexity and nuance rather than soothing tropes.

The biracial daughter to a widowed white businesswoman, eleven-year-old Dally Peteharrington finds that her life is scheduled to the minute, including private business lessons at their manor estate so that Dally will one day be prepared to take over the family business. After the death of her beloved grandfather, Dally’s only goal is to channel his love of adventure and join the Adventure Club at her private school, but her request is denied by her rigid mother. Yet a different opportunity surfaces when she finds a letter her grandfather left for her, including a map, in code, to a mysterious location. After some scheming, Dally finally arrives at the empty lot on the map, and in a blink, she sees The Secret Library, a magical building where she is greeted by name and swiftly taken away with the sip of a tea brewed by the librarian.

Reverently roaming through gilded halls, the librarian shows Dally the books shelved in collections including “Family Secrets,” “Transgressions,” and “I’m Not Who They Think I Am.” Each volume, some as thin as a beginning reader, some massive tomes, holds a secret, and any book opened in the reading room will pull its reader into the time period when the secret was revealed. There’s one simple rule: never pass beyond the layer of fog that surrounds the far borders of a secret, at risk of being marooned in that time. Dally returns frequently to the library, as she is only allowed one secret per day, and they begin small, like learning the ingredient in her chef’s delicious chili. But other secrets are more complex, such as helping her college-aged father steal a pair of earrings as part of fraternity hazing before meeting the love of his life.

As Dally is spurred on to larger secrets, spanning multiple days in various historical settings, she learns that many secrets are their own quests, for stability, for power, for acceptance, for love. As with any classic children’s fantasy, she is completely immersed in her visits, making friends with ancestors—queer pirates, other mixed raced families—who offer both warmth and joy that she is so desperately needing. But she must also engage with all the complexity of being a Black girl in time periods in which it’s unsafe to be either, along with the weight of race dynamics in history, people who embrace their queerness, and people who reject their community in order to pass as white. These issues are not pat but given careful thoughtfulness from the perspective of a child, and the care and protection of Dally’s cherished friends protect her from trauma while still allowing her to see the realities of oppression.

The end of the story brings Dally a choice regarding her future, a beautiful, gut-wrenching choice with the power to teach children that a personally fulfilling life will involve sacrifice, an embracing both of letting go and holding on desperately. Ultimately, she finds that family, love, and life can be repaired, even if it is not the way one imagined or wished. Magoon’s novel is like the very best of children’s fantasy literature, in that for all its whimsy and magic, it also carries something almost ineffably, crucially human: what it is to be alive, what it is to grow up. In that way, Magoon has more than earned her place on the shelf of life-changing, classic children’s fantasy novels.

—Amanda Toledo, Reviewer

Cover illustrations from THE SECRET LIBRARY. Jacket illustrations copyright © 2024 by Brittany Jackson. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.