Reviewer: Jill Haugh
Circle of Secrets
Kimberley Griffiths Little
Scholastic Press 2011
There are places in this world that bridge the gap between the ordinary and the supernatural. Straddling both worlds, these places allow us to experience the extraordinary while still firmly fixed in our own familiarity: Austere mountain peaks at sunset; soundless redwood forests; expansive beaches at sunrise; the stillness of swamplands. All places which offer us the possibility of something else. Something– exceptional.
There are books like that too. “Circle of Secrets” by Kimberley Griffiths Little, is one of them.
After her mother walked out on Shelby Jayne and her dad, Shelby thought she’d never speak to her mamma again. But with her dad leaving the country for work, it turns out she doesn’t have a choice: Shelby has to move back into her mamma’s house, deep in the heart of the Louisiana bayou.
Her new classmates tease and torment her, so Shelby’s relieved to finally find a friend in Gwen, a mysterious girl who lives alone on the bayou. But Shelby can’t help wondering if Gwen has something to do with the puzzling messages she finds hidden in the blue bottle tree behind her house. The only person who might be able to explain is her mamma — but Shelby’s not ready to ask. Not yet. It may take a brush with something from the beyond to help Shelby see that the power to put her own ghosts to rest is within her reach.
Kimberley Griffiths Little’s haunting and powerful tale brings one girl’s attempt to grapple with family, friendship, and forgiveness to beautiful, vivid life.
“Circle of Secrets’” setting, in the hauntingly beautiful Louisiana bayou, creates the perfect backdrop for discovering hidden family secrets, forging new paths once thought lost and facing the sunken past–dead-on. Forced out of her ordinary life and required to live with her estranged, troubled mother, Shelby Jane is isolated from everything she knows, surrounded instead by the brackish, brooding water of the swamp which stands between her and the everyday modern world. Full of unseen bogies, fierce gators, secret snags and lord-knows-what-else lurking under the slow-moving water, the swamp is a huge mother-of-a-metaphor which serves as both prison and bridge between Shelby Jane’s new life at the crumbling back-water shack with her “swamp-witch” mother and the ordered, polished edifice of her new life at school.
While faced with serious real-life issues like her mother deserting her, the stress of being bullied at school, and having her father leave to go work overseas, Shelby Jane has her hands full. Throw in a mysterious trail of cryptic notes, a blue-bottle tree, an old doll in an antique store, a story-laden charm-bracelet, a traiteur mother and an odd new best friend who has more secrets than your sister’s diary and you have a delicious, engaging read you will savor like the finest bowl of Cajun gumbo.
The magical elements in “Circle of Secrets” are deftly sprinkled and expertly doled out, like adding powerful spices to a Cajun etouffee: a little dab of cayenne here; a little black pepper there. Too much of a good thing would overpower the dish and alienate you from the true flavor. As it is, the mystical elements add to the real back-story of mother and daughter, rather than overshadow it, creating a memorable read one will think back on long after finishing.
This story is also as much about Shelby’s mother Mirage and the awakening of a daughter’s recognition of her mother as an individual with regrets and a past of her own. Who doesn’t remember seeing pictures of their mother as a girl, and trying to reconcile the mother you knew with the girl in the photo? Heady stuff, that.
What I liked best about this book was that it appealed to this middle-grade-girl part of me, this ever-tween, which has held out all these years, hoping beyond all hope that I don’t really have to grow up, that magic is alive and flourishing, and that someday, when I do get the call to time-travel to an alternate reality and do something fabulous: I’ll do it! The tween years are all about this cross-over. They are the bridge-years precariously strung between childhood and becoming an adult. Through these years we find out the truth about myths and magic, and discover—through books like “Circle of Secrets” that magic really DOES exist. It’s just the magic of change and of growth, of forgiveness and familial love, and we discover somewhere along the way, that those things are no less magical than make-believe.
In fact, they are more.
To read an interview with Kimberley Griffiths Little, please visit “I had a little nut-tree…” at jillhaugh.blogspot.com.