Review: The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets by Mat Tonti

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Gigi Pagliarulo

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Author and illustrator Mat Tonti takes readers on a wild and unexpected ride in this fresh graphic novel take on traditional Jewish stories, embedding Jewish tales and folklore from a wide range of sources within a thoroughly modern narrative. Jewish siblings Ben and Rose are pulled into a dangerous mystery when they receive a mystical message from their missing Bubbe. As they discover the mysterious Book of Secrets, they become deeply immersed in its chapters -- a series of stories that will lead them along the path to rescuing their grandparents and preserving the history of their people -- if the Book’s characters themselves don’t take over first!

The cryptic and powerful Doughlem, a Golem-like creature with the Hebrew word אמת baked into a crust atop his forehead, is a crucial throughline in this genre-traversing book, which weaves in tales from the Mishnah, the Midrash, Chasidim, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and even Franz Kafka with familiar comic book action and fight scenes. Dynamic artwork features odd but expressive big-eyed characters, a vivid color palette, gorgeous Hebrew lettering, and a satisfying mix of diverse panels and free-floating illustrations. In addition, brisk pacing, a unique structure, and an engrossing plot full of fascinating secrets to discover make this culturally authentic book an excellent addition to the very limited canon of Jewish-themed graphic novels for children.

This unique title is a fine read for a wide variety of kids and a contender for a Sydney Taylor Honor Award or perhaps even a Sydney Taylor Book Award. It has strong and authentic Jewish content that introduces readers to stories from diverse time periods and origins and experiences. Tonti is a Rabbi, teacher, and trained as a scribe, providing solid Jewish scholarship and research as a foundation for his fantastical tale. While the style of art is unusual and the story unconventional, the awards committee may just have a taste for something different this year, and will send the The Book of Secrets to the top of their list!

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Reviewer Gigi Perlman Pagliarulo is a librarian for the Denver Public Library. She is especially interested in youth services, early literacy, and issues of equity, diversity and inclusion within children's literature and programming. She has served on the steering committee of Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy, and the CLEL Bell Picture Book Award Selection Committee.