“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Secret Keeper • Young Adult Fiction

Secret Keeper
by Mitali Perkins
Just out! • Delacorte Press/Random House • YA fiction • Ages 12 and up
One girl's struggle, within the constraints of tradition, to establish her identity and claim her future.
Story: When her father leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s family in Calcutta. Asha’s solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Then news arrives about Baba ... and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever. Set in the mid-1970s, a time of Indian political turmoil, Mitali Perkins probes the relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, women and men.
Story behind the story: Mitali Perkins (whose first name means "friendly" in Bangla) was born in Kolkata. She shares this story about SECRET KEEPER: "The character of Jay in SECRET KEEPER came to mind when my mother told me one of her secrets. She was a teenager growing up in Kolkata, India, much like Asha and Reet, and they had moved to a similar house with extended family.

One afternoon, Ma went on the rooftop to let her long hair dry in the sun. A window next door flew open, and a neighbor guy started a conversation. It was sweet, innocent by Western standards, but flirtatious nonetheless, and risky for a girl and boy who could never marry for love. They spoke a few more times, and soon it was clear: he liked her, and she liked him.

Somehow, my grandmother found out. Next thing my mother knew, the servants had boarded up the door to the roof, and my grandmother was issuing a stern diatribe about shaming the entire family.

My own parents' marriage was arranged shortly after that. They saw each other briefly before their wedding in front of the extended family, and Ma served Baba tea, but they first spoke to each other on their wedding night. The good news is that Ma did get her happy ending, as I trust Reet and Asha both will in SECRET KEEPER: my parents (see photo) have been married for over fifty years now, and they adore each other."

Here's what the reviewers are saying about SECRET KEEPER:
"Well-developed characters, funny dialogue, and the authentic depiction of spunky Asha’s longing for romance and female self-determination, set in a culture that restrains women’s choices, make this book an attractive pick for teenage girls."— School Library Journal

"In an intimate and absorbing drama about a displaced Indian family in the 1970s, Perkins (Monsoon Summer) vividly highlights the conflict between traditional Indian values and feminist ideals....Besides offering insight into Indian culture, Perkins offers a moving portrait of a rebellious teen who relies on ingenuity rather than charm to prove her worth."— Publisher's Weekly

"I could practically smell and taste Calcutta in the 1970's, and I loved the characters, especially Asha. "— Jen Robinson, JKR Books

"The characters drew a hole in my heart from how life-like they were and how the ending wasn't exactly what I wanted. It was still amazing. If you want to discover a book that will pull your heart strings and make you wonder... How much would you sacrifice to save someone that you loved?"— Sarah Woodard, Sarah's Random Musings

"Asha, her older sister Reet, their mother, and the rest of their family, who take them in when Asha’s father leaves to find an engineering job in America, all leap off the pages. In most scenes, you can hear the music of Bengali accents, and the swishing of the cloth of brightly colored saris ... the book is compelling enough for adults to read as well as the younger readers being targeted." — Melissa A. Bartell, All Things Girl

Watch a book trailer. Join the ongoing conversation on books between cultures at Mitali's blog.

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent and reviews are in the works; please check back and click on the "comments" link below to read what your colleagues have to say.


Tina's Blog said...

On Friday I received The Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins in the mail. On Saturday morning I started reading it and was finished by Saturday night. This is a wonderful young adult novel set in Bangladesh in the mid 1970s. Indira Gandhi is the prime minister and there is a great deal of unrest. Asha Gupta is sixteen years old, trying to grow up and keep up with her beautiful older sister, Reet. Their father leaves the girls and their mother in the care of their uncle while Father travels to America looking for an engineering job. The search takes longer than anyone likes and the family's need for money begins to cause some stress. Reet is old enough to be married off so Uncle begins to look into that, and Reet, despite her own feelings about marriage, goes along with Uncle in order to please her mother. Asha has a harder time conforming to the traditional role set before her. She dreams of going to college and can't wait for Father to send for them in America. Helping her pass time is Jay, an artist who lives next door. The two meet to talk on the roof of their homes in secret, since doing so publicly would not be allowed. When they finally hear from Father the whole family is left to cope with their new status and Asha continues to struggle with her promise to her father, that she take care of her mother.
I have never read Perkins' work before, but enjoyed this book thoroughly.
Rating 5/5

Treasure Hatch said...

I found this book difficult to read. Maybe it is the style in which the author writes. The content was thought provoking and overall I would recommend this book to 8th graders and up in my media center.

Treasure Hatch

dmuldawer said...

On the surface, The Secret Keeper appears to refer to Asha's diaries, but at a deeper level the uncertainty and destiny of the main characters is also a secret.

At the center of the conflict is Asha, a girl who's been raised with the freedom befitting a boy and who resents being pigeonholed into a stereotypical role when she begins to menstruate.

After Asha's father leaves for America in the hope of finding work, Asha, her sister, and her mother are forced to move to Calcutta to live with her father's brother and his family.

There the women must define themselves in new roles. Their only chance for escape is the hope of moving to America, but that dream is shattered when the father is killed by falling off the platform of a New York subway.

Often the characters are paralyzed by the restrictions and transitions of their culture. Here again Asha makes a nice contrast as she takes action to prevent her beloved sister from being married to someone inappropriate and to stir her mother out of the depths of depression.

True to the title, the reader is left with questions about hidden secrets. Did the father fall or commit suicide? What is wrong with Reet's suitor that his nephew is afraid of him? Will Reet find happiness with Jay? Will Asha regret her choice? Will she use education to break boundaries or will she respect the secrets of her culture?

The Secret was a thought-provoking book and a good read. In the spunky and opinionated Asha, pre-teens and teens can find a role model in their search for individuality.

Picnic Basket Rating: 5

EShay said...

The Secret Keeper gives an interesting view into a different culture and time. I appreciated learning about life in India in the 1970s. However, it was difficult to keep reading. I don't know if it was the style or just knowing that something bad was going to happen, but it took me longer to read than it should have. I only cared about Asha and Baba throughout the book and felt sorry for Asha. There were problems with all of the others I just couldn't get over.
I do think this book could help young girls in America appreciate what they have. It made me think twice.
I give it a 3.5

lpurcelley said...

I enjoyed reading this book. It was a very authentic book and I would recommend it to middle and high school students. It was thought-provoking and made me appreciate my freedoms with regards to relationships.

Catherine Yezak said...

I just finished reading The Secret Keeper. It is a fantastic story! My students can definitely relate to having to live with extended family members and having to obey others rules and not having any space/privacy of their own. They tell me this daily. They can also relate to the importance of keeping promises, even if they mean hurting yourself. And they definitely can relate to being poor and not having any money.

What I really liked about the story is the timelessness of it. I know the story takes place in the mid 1970s, but it feels like it is happening today, especially considering the economic climate. The story doesn't really have anything in it that dates it and it is very easy to forget that it takes place in India. This could be happening in my hometown or country. Even the characters are well written and strong. Reet and Asha may be the central characters but they also depend on Raj and Jay to fill out the story line.

I like the fact that the villain in this story isn't a person. It is actually the circumstances that the characters find themselves in - Reet, Ma, and Asha having to live with Baba's family because he lost his job and goes to the states to find a new one, the marriage proposal for Reet, Baba's death, Jay and Reet's marriage. All of these situations blend with the social and political upheaval of India create a compelling story.

I can easily see using this story with a history class or unit on other cultures. My students will definitely enjoy reading this.

I rate this a 5

Catherine Yezak, Special Education Teacher, Marquette Area Public Schools.

Lemon the Duck said...

I wept right in the middle of the mall as I read this book while waiting for my daughter to window shop with her friends. I couldn't put it down, or concentrate on anything else. I was a blubbering fool. I felt as if the author pulled up a stool and sat me right at Asha's family table.
I felt in tune with the culture, thoughts and feelings of this young woman as she struggled with so many things. What a wonderful way to learn about the author's culture. The sacrafices the main characters made were amazing. I rate this book a 5 out of 5.

cupcake said...

What a delightful book! I admit that it took a few pages to get into it, but once I did, I enjoyed it thoroughly. As another commenter mentioned, I liked all of the layers of secrets - secrets within families as a whole, between family members, within society. I think this is a book to which many teen girls will relate, regardless of whether or not they are Indian or have any knowledge of India. In fact, I like how it introduces them to a culture with which they may have scarce familiarity.

I thought the dialogue rang true, and the emotions experienced by Asha and her sister seemed realistic. I also liked the messages of the book - the importance of family, loyalty and putting others before yourself.

This was a wonderfully written book, and I look forward to sharing it with my high school sophomores and juniors.

Picnic rating: 5 out of 5

Sandra Stiles said...

Today was sustained silent reading all day in my reading classes so I chose to read Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins. I finished the book before my lst class was over. This book definately has a place on my shelf as well as a place in my heart. The characters were so well developed that I felt as if I was in the home with them living through their experiences. I cried at the end of the book when Asha made the choices and sacrifices she did for her family. True love was shown by both Jay and Asha through their actions. My students will learn so much about the Indian culture through this book. I know I did. I also believe they will learn to appreciate the freedoms they have to make the choices they make after reading this book. I definately give this book a rating of 5.

Carrie Blagg, Cherokee Elementary said...

While I read "Secret Keeper" I laughed, cried, and realized how much I take my freedoms as well as my way of life for granted. Mitali Perkins has given us an extraordinary book that gives us insight into the culture of India. Job well done!

The previous reviewers have done a fabulous job of giving a synopsis of the book; therefore, I will only add, this is a must-read book especially for middle and high school girls.

Rating 5 out of 5!

Anonymous said...

“Secret Keeper” is a powerful book that portrays several dynamics. It is a look into a traditional Indian, or maybe more specifically, Bengali mentality, a life that is very different from the contemporary American/Western life. In this regards, it is very educational for anyone outside of the Indian/Bengali culture. The author having come from and experiencing this mentality, gives the book and its experiences even more credibility. Even more, the book is a look into the mind of a protagonist that lives between cultures. Not only does the protagonist live between Western ideas and Indian ideas, but also between Bengali “village” ideas and Bengali “city” ideas.

I enjoy the portrayal of the protagonist toggling between her interactions with her peers, with her elders, and with her juniors. I think that youth who read this book will enjoy the youthful and secret language the protagonist uses with her peers. And I think that the way she interacts with her elders, with respect and love, is inspiring - especially her interactions with her parents – which I think some youth in this American society long for with their own elders/parents. And she is inspiring in her interactions with her juniors whom she desires to deliver from the more shallow ideas that she grew up with: she also is perceptive of their need for quality attention.

Aside from all of this, the book struck at my emotions and was a very quick read because I had a hard time putting it down. When I had to put it down, I thought about it and wondered what was going to happen next.

The book seems to be more geared toward girls, but I think boys could benefit from it, too. I hope that they would read it, too, but it may not be one that they are drawn to on their own, especially judging by the cover.

I give this book a Picnic Basket rating of 5. I strongly, strongly recommend this book, and when I begin to teach I hope I can make this book required reading. And… I would definitely plan a picnic around it!

Sarah Oyerinde
Marion, Indiana

ahslibrarian said...

The Secret Keeperis a nice introductory piece for those wanting to explore the mysteries of the land that lies between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The form of the story is not foreign, but some of the conflicts that arise might not be so familiar to all readers. The idea of the next living male relative taking responsibility for the family is not totally unfamiliar. The basic story could be lifted out of this setting and put into another culture. The results could be the same, but the journey would take a few different turns. The ability for a story to be able to cross cultural boundaries says a lot about the basic ideas behind the writing. Mitali Perkins is able to make makes that happen.

One element that always hangs in the balance with books set in another culture is the decision to include or omit various concepts, traditions, and vocabulary. Their use adds color and brings a sense of authenticity that is often unachievable by any other means. What does not work well is to depend solely on a glossary or appendix to provide such details. Perkins uses both, but only as an additional resource at the end of the text. Although preferences vary, finding a way to embed this extra information in the text would have been sufficient.

A decent story with some cultural information is what one should expect from this book. Creative teachers might develop the family issues and even find a way to share the book with an entire class. Other possible uses include an investigation into gender roles in sports and education.

Add this book with confidence, but be prepared to talk it up among students to get them started.

A Weak 4 Out of a Possible 5

John Parker
Media Coordinator
Andrews High School
Andrews, NC 28901


Julie P. said...

I have been on a huge YA kick lately -- it's like I just discovered a whole new genre that I absolutely adore. And I feel really lucky because all the YA books that I've read recently have been terrific. SECRET KEEPER by Mitali Perkins is no exception. I thought this was a very well-written novel with a very interesting story.

SECRET KEEPER takes place in India in the mid-70s when India is going through a huge state of change. I really appreciated how the author incorporated some of India's political history and other pertinent cultural pieces into the book. I love learning about foreign countries and their customs, and I'm pretty sure that young girls will enjoy that part of this novel too. Much of what Asha and her sister Reet experience in this novel will seem very odd to American girls who live in current times; however, what I truly loved about this novel is that young girls will still be able to relate to these characters. The feeling that Asha has about boys and becoming a woman are universal themes to all teen girls.

And speaking of characters, I couldn't help but fall in love with Asha and Reet. While both girls were very different, they had a love that can only be shared between sisters. I think they were brought closer by their father's departure and their mother's depression, and I liked that they confided in and unconditionally supported each other. Many of the supporting characters were also wonderful, and I especially liked their cousin and Asha's love interest Jay. These two characters especially were some of the only positive things in these girls' lives.

Asha was definitely my favorite character in this novel. She was a strong, brave, and intelligent; yet she also was able to give of herself to the point of self-sacrifice. I loved how the author showed that she had issues with "becoming a women" and even challenged what was expected of her. There were many times in this novel where my heart just broke for her; however, I always felt that she was ultimately a survivor and things would turn out okay for her.

Since I'm haven't been a big reader (or even follower) of YA fiction, I wasn't familiar with Ms. Perkins' books. She has written quite a few other ones that look great like THE NOT-SO-STAR-SPANGLED LIFE OF SUNITA SEN and RICKSHAW GIRL which both fall into the age range of my almost 10 year old daughter. In addition, I think FIRST DAUGHTER: EXTREME AMERICAN MAKEOVER and FIRST DAUGHTER: WHITE HOUSE RULES look like part of a fantastic series. If SECRET KEEPER is any indication of her previous books, I definitely want to read them. Ms. Perkins also has a great website that you should really check out. And, if you think you or your daughter might be interested in reading SECRET KEEPER, you can read this excerpt.

This book would make a wonderful selection for our mother-daughter book club. The book is geared towards 12 year old and up, our girls will have to wait a few more years; however, I think young teen girls will really enjoy this story. There are so many complicated themes to discuss such as mother/daughter relationships, relationships between sisters, issues between men and women, and even friendship and love. And even though the book takes place over 30 years ago and in a foreign country, there are still so many things that young girls will relate to.

Rating 4/5

Mrs. Horne said...

I sure hope the author reads this because after finishing The Secret Keeper I WANT A SEQUEL!!! I am dying to know what becomes of Reet and Jay in New York and how Asha fares in Delhi with her mother. I would love to get a peek at what happens when Jay and Asha meet again, although I am guessing that it will be very friendly and not awkward like they both are afraid of. They both are such intriguing characters!

I am touched by the culture of the area, then and now, and how much family means. Asha and Reet are a great example of sacrificing your own happiness for the well-being of your family. I cannot imagine being put in the position that Asha finds herself in.

This novel was hard to get into at first but it really captured my attention as Jay and Asha's relationship developed on the rooftop and her family struggles with the issue of Reet's impending marriage.

I would use this novel as a companion to a unit on the time period (1970s) or a unit on the region. Students would really find this captivating because it is such a clear and well-written look at the culture that enveloped that country and particularly, the lives of girls.

Picnic Basket Rating: 4/5

Lindsay Horne
New Kent Middle School
New Kent, VA

ESnover said...

I must say that I too, loved this book, right up until Reet's resolution to the situation. Everything about this book seemed very real, culturally relevant, and I cared deeply about the characters, especially Reet and her sister, as they try to navigate the difficult constraints of a traditional 1970s Indian family. Even though I know people have made great sacrifices in the face of daunting circumstances, I felt that Reet's solution was difficult to swallow and actually caused my to be a bit soured towards the book as a whole. Even though it looks like there is hope for the sisters' relationship at the end, it is clear that Reet will never have any type of relationship with Jay - how could she? I envision Reet being able to return to school and eventually achieve her dream of becoming a psychologist - but at what cost? Although she may even find love again, she will always wonder what could have been.
Actually, I would love to hear some reaction from students on this one...great conversations are bound to ensue!
5 out of 5
Eileen Snover
Grades 6-8
Allentown, PA

linda said...

It took me a little while to read this book, since I was not used to the genre,type of writing or grade level. However, it did give me an appreciation for the responses that we require from our students. Since it was a mature read, I had my concerns about the grade level of reading. Some students may be able to handle the reading level, but not the maturity level. This book would be a good addition to an 8th, 9th grade library, supplementing the world culture class/study.

Anonymous said...

I liked that there was just enough detail, not too much. And I liked how she included Asha's thoughts with her narration, they just flowed in. What I didn't like was that there wasn't the ending I expected, but at least it was a little bit happy. I would recommend this book to other kids -- it was interesting to read.

-- Brieana, Grade 7

Rebecca said...

is book was an amazing story of the struggles and hardships a family must overcome in such a patriarchal society. I love the sense of family and acceptance that finally comes out at the end. It was a great read.

Elizabeth said...

I would give this book a rating of 4 out of 5. This book left me wanting to know what is going to happen next...

Laurie said...

I enjoyed this peek into a different culture -- and Asha, the protagonist, is very relatable in spite of the differences. Set in India in the 1970s, Asha's roles as a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, and granddaughter are rigidly defined, and she chafes under cultural mores that American kids may have a hard time understanding. The ending, too, is not the expected happily-ever-after; it's more realistic than that, and about as happy as it could be under the circumstances. I do wish there had been more descriptions of the setting, but, like Asha, the action was mostly confined to the home. A coming-of-age story for thoughtful girls interested in other cultures. I give this one a 3. Laurie, Youth Services Librarian, Baldwin Public Library, MI

wordwarrior said...

The Secret Keeper by
Mitali Perkins was an interesting look into another culture. Asha and her older sister Reet introduce the reader to traditonal values of another culture and how different family members deal with thier roles in a family. I live in a small rural area, with little diversity in our high school. There are just a few indian and middle eastern students and they are often being questioned by the other students about their dating customs, arranged marriages and religious beliefs. This book would be a good choice to recommend to students interested in learning about another culture. They will fall in love with Asha and learn a little in the process.
I give Secret Keeper a 4 for its entertainment and educational value.

Susan Appleton said...

What a wonderful book! I learned a lot about the Indian culture which I knew NOTHING about! It really makes you appreciate the rights we have to make choices for ourselves too. It was a little hard to get going with the book, but I glad I persisted because after the first few pages I was HOOKED until the very end! Very eye-opening and it makes you feel like you are RIGHT there with the characters! I would recommend it for my upper elementary students but I think I would explain some cultural things to them beforehand to help them transition smoothly through it. I would rank it a 4 out of 5 though. Good book!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved The Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins and think it is a perfect read for students in grades 7-9. This book would be great to use as part of a literature circle or in conjunction with a social studies unit. It is a very interesting look into the culture of India during the 1970's.

Asha is a greatly inspirational figure for any young person to emulate. I laughed out loud and cried along with her Asha through her experiences. I found the authors writing style very approachable, and I easily identified with the characters. I found myself asking if I could make the same sacrifices Asha made out of love for her sister. When I finished the book, I just wanted more. I hope Mitali Perkins is planning on sharing more about Asha's life and the strong woman she is becoming.

What a terrific book for young adults. I rate this book a 5!

Jennifer Sherman
Vitalistic Therapeutic Charter School of the Lehigh Valley

Pamela Kramer said...

The Secret Keeper

It was very interesting reading this book as I have just read two books on life in India. They are adult books by Shobhan Bantwal. Because of these two books, reading The Secret Keeper was all the more fascinating. While the adult books dealt with the culture from the point of view of marriage and its restrictions, the YA books deals with growing up in India from the point of view of a girl, and briefly (her cousin) from the boy's point of view.

In addition to the restrictions placed on girls and women (and especially widows), the book does a marvelous job showing the cultural prejudice that existed (and still exists) in India.

I would highly recommend this book for any 6th grader and older.

I give it a 5/5. It's suitable for any picnic!

Pamela Kramer
Oak Terrace School
Highwood, Il

Tasses said...

I’m going to warn you: I cried at the end of Secret Keeper. Don’t worry; I won’t give away too many secrets. Just one: I didn’t cry because of the sad ending. I cried because author Mitali Perkins resisted the urge to "go Disney," and I instantly loved her for it.

A quick, basic synopsis: Asha & Reet are sisters forced to leave school behind and move, along with their depressed mother, into their paternal grandmother’s strict home while their father searches for work in America. While waiting for their father to send for them, sixteen-year-old Asha confides her secrets to a diary, the secret keeper, and befriends an odd boy next door. In the meantime, the whole family is trying to marry Reet off as Asha tries to save her sister from this unwanted, though not uncommon, fate

The trick with historical or cultural fiction (and Secret Keeper is both) is to create a story where the reader forgets that they are in another time or place. Though Secret Keeper takes place in 1970’s India, the themes are universal. Especially engaging is protagonist Asha, a strong and selfless young woman in a culture and time when such traits are more burden than complement. Not only does Secret Keeper have a great story to tell, it also offers even-handed insight into Indian culture and leaves the reader both heartbroken and uplifted.

Cheryl Tasses
Reading Specialist
Picnic Basket rating 4.5/5
See my full review on Reading Rumpus

Kathy said...

I absolutedly loved the Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins. As other reviewers have stated, it was a little hard to get into but once I was bitten - I couldn't put it down. I knew nothing of the Indian culture in the mid 1970s but now feel like I have peeked into it, thanks to Ms. Perkins. I also hope she plans to write a sequel that follows the sisters and mom. Can hardly wait!

Picnic Basket Review: 5

Kathy J. Johnson
4th Grade
Williamsburg Elementary
Williamsburg, MO

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the Secret Keeper. Once I started it I was unable to put it down. As Asha and her family wait to hear from her father in New York, she is made to follow the customs set for girls by the Indian society. Asha has difficulty with this because her father has always allowed her to had the freedom she would have if she was his son.
The reference to the Jailor, her mothers mood when she was not responding to the people around her, was very telling of how Asha felt about the restrictions put on women in the society.
The ulitimate sacrifice that Asha makes is giving up the man she loves to her sister to make life better for her family. I think it is very important to share this book with the girls in my class. It is important for them to know how other women live in different parts of the world.
In sixth grade we study India. I would share this story with some of my mature readers. I would also recommend it to the older readers in the school.
I give this book a 5 in my picnic basket.
Jackie Purificato
Consultant teacher

Amy said...

I could NOT put this one down. The story of Asha and Reet really touched me, especially since I come from a family with a strong ethnic background who emigrated to the USA some 50 years ago. Reading their story allowed me to envision what my family must have gone through before I was born. I think this will be a great cultural addition to my classroom and will touch the hearts of many readers.

I give it a 5.


The Black Family said...

This book was one of those that you wish you could just wave a magic wand and change the outcome. My heart ached for Asha and her selflessness. This is a great book for students who are privileged to live in the U.S. in this day and age where we can choose our own futures.

4 out of 5

Lindsey B.
Title I teacher

Stacy B. said...

I wasn't immediately drawn to "The Secret Keeper" but after reading just a bit of it I was hooked! This book contains all the elements a of good young adult story and will be a terrific addtion to a classroom library. I passed my copy along to a friend and will definitely recommend this book to others!

booktoo said...

So much of what I want to say has been said by my colleagues. 'Secret Keeper' by Mitali Perkins- so visual...- the images just stay & stay with you. Thanks for the vivid visuals!
rated 5/5