By Casey Wilson
I first discovered Natalie Standiford with her lovely YA novel How to Say Goodbye in Robot, a moving portrait of friendship and the quirks that make it possible. So I knew I would be reading her new middle grades novel (Yes! Middle grades fiction on this blog! Miracles do occur!) The Secret Tree eventually, and during a visit to The Children’s Bookshop in Boston during the Children’s Literature Association Conference I decided to take the plunge and pick it up. (For the record, that shop is absolutely lovely. I wish we had one like it here in Gainesville.) I’m glad I did, because it’s maintains much of the spirit that I loved about How to Say Goodbye in Robot while still being its own entity.
The Secret Tree is set at that most precarious of times: just before the protagonist, Minty, is to begin middle school. She and her best friend Paz spend their days practicing roller derby moves, their friendship safe and secure – for now. One day, Minty spots someone watching the people in her neighborhood and chases the mysterious spy down, discovering in the process the Secret Tree of the title. Whenever Minty passes the tree, she finds notes hidden inside, secrets scrawled across them. These secrets reveal pain and loneliness and anger, and as Minty and a new friend begin to investigate them, she learns that all of the people she’s grown up with – Paz included – have their own lives and concerns.
All’s well that ends well – and I don’t think it’s a significant spoiler to say that The Secret Tree does end well – but Standiford layers the path to that conclusion with genuine emotion and real problems. The peculiar “magic” of the tree (very, very light magical realism here, and even that can be interpreted as straight realism, if you choose) serves as a catalyst for Minty, but the tree itself is mostly an afterthought. Instead, the novel is concerned with the humans in Minty’s neighborhood, and the way that they all have to learn to care for and trust each other in order to move past the secrets that the tree is supposed to swallow up. One late development regarding Minty’s new friend seems, perhaps, a bit too fortuitous, but by that point Standiford has built up enough goodwill that I, at least, was content rather than skeptical.
And that’s the core of The Secret Tree, really. It’s about building up goodwill for those around you, so that you might forgive what (few) flaws do exist. And at that, Standiford succeeds quite well.
Casey is a PhD student.