It is summer, and Minty and her best friend Paz have big plans to practice the roller derby skills that will one day bring them fame under their roller derby nicknames, Minty Fresh and Pax. A. Punch. Unfortunately for Minty, it doesn’t take long for Paz to lose interest in roller derby and begin spending her time with a different group of girls who aren’t particularly kind to Minty. Soon, though, Minty is distracted from the strain in her friendship by a boy named Raymond, whom she catches stealing from kids in the neighborhood and taking their photos. She and Raymond discover a secret tree, in which their neighbors hide their innermost secrets. As Minty helps Raymond connect each secret with its owner, she realizes he also has a big secret of his own.
There is a lot to like about this book. Natalie Standiford writes really powerful descriptions, and there are many of those in this book. Even now, days after finishing the story, I can conjure up images of the secret tree, of the four barrettes Paz and her new friends wear in their hair, and of the model home where Raymond lives. Standiford very nicely captures the entire atmosphere of the neighborhood she writes about, so that the reader feels very familiar with it very quickly and understands the emotions and motivations of each character as his or her secret is revealed.
I also love the way that friendships and sisterly relationships are portrayed in this book. Many books discuss the tensions between best friends and between teen big sisters and tween little sisters, but this story manages to approach it in a way that feels fresh and interesting to read about. I think Minty and Paz’s shared love of roller derby definitely contributes to that feeling of newness, as I don’t think that it something I’ve ever seen in a children’s book before. It was also interesting to see the ways in which Minty and Paz’s friendship is tangled up with their older sisters’ friendship to each other. That’s another dynamic I don’t think I have seen in any other middle grade books.
Because of Raymond’s mysterious behavior and the neighborhood legends surrounding him and the woods, I think The Secret Tree makes a great read-alike for Maniac Magee. The story does resolve itself somewhat too easily in the end, which is a bit of a disappointment, but overall, this is a great summer tale about the secrets we all keep, even from our closest friends. It doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch of Standiford’s YA tearjerker, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, but it’s still absolutely worth the read.
I borrowed The Secret Tree from my local public library.