Holiday gift book recommendation #3: Chasing Secrets

Secret Garden Books owner Christy McDanold has a lot of favorite books going at any one time. When I asked her to name one choice for a holiday recommendation, she seems proud to have narrowed it down to just two.

Her first choice is Maps, an “artful, rich atlas of the world” hand-drawn by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska, a Polish couple who are best-known for their popular typefaces. McDanold can’t stop gushing over Maps, calling the book “clever and creative,” and a gorgeous gift idea for “anyone who loves maps.” As she flips through, McDanold calls Maps “just plain beautiful,” stopping on the page for Croatia and admiring the illustrations of all the qualities that make Croatia unique: folk costumes, animals, foods, the flag. The book, she says, gives readers “a sense of the culture and the country.” There are similar portraits of other countries, including Tanzania and Namibia and “a fair amount of Europe,” though McDanold notes that the book doesn’t include every country in the world, calling it “an auxiliary reference” that kids and adults will spend hours poring over, admiring the sheer artfulness of it.

The other book that McDanold has been excited about most recently is Chasing Secrets: A Deadly Surprise in the City of Lies, by Gennifer Choldenko, an author who won a Newbery Award a few years ago for her novel Al Capone Does My Shirts. Set in San Francisco in the Gilded Age, Chasing Secrets tells the story of what happened when an outbreak of the plague, possibly introduced to the city by travelers from Hawaii, caused panic in the city. “The civic approach,” McDanold says, “was to wall off Chinatown. In Hawaii, the civic leaders actually burned down Chinatown” in response to the outbreak. (This was just before the discovery of germs, when nobody could conceive of microscopic life causing illness.)

The main character of Chasing Secrets is Lizzy, a girl of twelve or thirteen who “lives with her widowed father, a doctor and a very caring, compassionate fellow who does the best he can without scientific knowledge.” Lizzy finds out about the proposed quarantine of Chinatown, and she becomes worried about what this means for the son of the family’s cook, an immigrant from China with a son Lizzy’s age.

McDanold says Chasing Secrets is appropriate for anyone aged ten and up. It raises questions about “what grownups are hiding from kids and how inequitable the world is for people who are different” from the status quo. Choldenko is a gifted researcher, and the book is packed with detail, both in the narrative and in an informative author’s note at the end, that provides context and information to modern readers. As a historical novel, she says, it’s “top-notch.” “I really liked this book,” she enthuses, calling it “a pretty good echo of our time,” focused as it is on the qualities of “real leadership when it comes to people who are different.” Maybe someone should send Donald Trump a copy.