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It’s Not Like It’s a Secret
It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura
HarperTeen, May 2017
Reviewed from a final copy
So today we have a realistic coming of age/first love story, and it’s sweet and especially earnest. With one star review, this isn’t a book that’s making major waves; but it’s important to remember that starred reviews aren’t really a predictor for the Printz award. There’s enough about It’s Not Like It’s a Secret that feels fresh and engaging that I could see a long conversation happening at the RealCommittee table. Will that be enough for a medal at the end of the year? WHO CAN SAY? (I am about to try to say.)
Earnest is the word I keep coming back to in describing this title. The characters — especially Sana, but really all of them — are earnest. There are no real villains here, just people who sometimes hurt each other and sometimes learn from each other. It’s worth noting that it’s a fairly crowded cast, although it’s never confusing or hard to remember who’s who. We spend a little time with the Wisconsin friends — mostly to contrast Sana’s experiences and character growth with her time in California. The California friends are far more developed and interesting, and give Sana real opportunities for growth. Reggie, Hanh, and Elaine have a lot of page time functioning as a Block of Friends, but have subtle moments where they (particularly Hanh) differentiate from each other. Sana’s family provides another area where she is able to learn and grow, and her terror about being honest with them is relatable, heartfelt, and affecting. The mother-daughter relationship here is especially fantastic: flawed, interesting, and ultimately loving.
There are a few characters who function more as foils to Sana, or simply as vehicles for her growth — Christina and Caleb both provide challenges for her, and allow her to grow, but don’t quite seem like breathing, living beings. There are also a few points where I felt more like Sana and Jamie had insta-love — and maybe that’s a function of first love, and also indicative of where each character is emotionally rather than an actual flaw, but I did want a little more grist and a little more sense of connection in the love part of this love story.
I have to give some love to the plot; it, too, is very earnest. It’s partly a love story and even more a coming of age story; Sana must learn to understand herself, advocate for herself, and also modulate and critique herself — because she, as we all have, has internalized some racist ideas. Sana’s growth as a character is believable, and we are rooting for her the whole way. However, the second half of the book feels a little more sprawling, a little less controlled, than the first half. Sugiura has raised some fascinating questions but they almost overwhelm the story in getting resolved. The later part of the book sometimes has a checklist feel (Caleb and Sana are OK now; Christina and Sana are in a better place now), and some aspects of the ending feel a bit too neat.
I feel like I’m hitting this one with many harsh criticisms, and I don’t mean to; it’s got a lot of positive elements which explains the comments love it got here. My personal favorite part was Sana’s move from the almost-all-white town in Wisconsin to a more diverse coastal city. (That, of course, is because of this year, though, and is more about me than the content of the book, really. All I really mean to say is: Sugiura got a lot of the Midwestern culture shock part right. And also: my baggage! Wee!) Also really good: the respectful inclusion of a slightly different family structure here. Also some more good here: hard conversations about internalized racism, about breaking down stereotypes. And some more, more good here: such sweet depictions of finding friendship and understanding in a new setting.
So I’m not convinced that this will take a Printzly medal at the end of the year, but I am wondering about debuts and the Morris. The pool for Morris is much smaller than for Printz, and as a result, conversation there can be very different. I for sure don’t have a complete list of debuts from this year, but I am really feeling like it’s a strong, strong list of titles. I’m not pegging this for a Printz medal, but I wonder about the chances for a Morris. What do you all think?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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