If you’re looking for a sweet, fun read for the summer holidays, look no further!
Book: 44 Tiny Secrets by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King
Read before: No
Publication date: 23rd July 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Little Tiger Books. All opinions my own.
This is such a sweet read! Betsy Bow-Linnet is not brilliant at the piano. This wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t the daughter of two of the finest pianists in the world – and worse, she overheard her mum using the words ‘Terrible Disappointment’ (capitals included). When she receives a mysterious letter offering her the secret to perfect, passionate piano-playing – 44 trained pygmy mice! – she’s wary, but ends up drawn into an ever-growing lie about her new-found skills. Can she come clean? And will her parents still appreciate her if she’s not a piano star?
Betsy’s story should resonate with anyone who’s been anxious that they aren’t talented enough or skilled at the right things. By focusing so much on how not-genius she is, Betsy misses the fact that she’s still very good, and that she has so many other amazing qualities – it’s certainly a moral I could have used at some points in my life, when stressing about not picking a skill up quickly enough! She also fails to notice that her family adore her regardless of her piano skills, so when everything is resolved it’s incredibly comforting to both Betsy and the reader that the people who love you do so because of your own self, not any external achievement.
The family relationships here are one of the best parts – Betsy lives with her parents and her grandad, and her very different relationships with each of them are really well-sketched. Her grandad in particular is a very sweet character, and I loved how supportive he was of her and how close they were. It’s always nice to see extended family portrayed positively in childrens’ books, and it adds a nice twist here that he’s often her main caregiver while her parents travel. There’s a gorgeous paragraph (with illustration!) about how Betsy mostly visualises her parents by the top of their heads as she watches from the top of the stairs when they leave or come in – it speaks volumes about the distance in that relationship, and it makes it feel so wonderful to see how far they come by the end of the book.
It also has a great theme running throughout: secrets are more trouble than they’re worth. Though the idea of 44 classically-trained pianist mice is enchanting, they end up sending Betsy into a spiral of lies and difficulty that can only be resolved by accepting that she needs to be honest, not just about the mice but also about her true feelings. She’s making herself miserable trying to be a piano genius, and the collapse of the mouse-secret forces her to face up to this. She learns to be honest with herself and others about how she feels and what she wants, which creates a much healthier emotional environment – it’s definitely advice worth learning, and 44 Tiny Secrets puts that across really well.
Don’t let me make you think it isn’t fun though – there’s a lot of humour in both the text and the pictures! The book is heavily illustrated throughout by Ashley King, whose style I really love (I’m a big fan of Witch for a Week!), in black, white, and green – I really like the addition of the green as it adds a real sense of quirkiness to the pages. Some of the page backgrounds are green too – it’s a visually entertaining book, and will definitely keep the attention of a distractible kid. King has a particular talent for expressions, whether they be on humans or animals, and there are some wonderful examples in this book; I particularly enjoyed Betsy’s various worried faces, and the sheer range of her parents’ snooty friends. The mice are adorable too!
I really enjoyed this sweet, fun, emotional read. It’s always nice when the worst thing you can think of to say about a book was that you didn’t like the paper it was printed on (I hate squeaky shiny paper)! Highly recommended, especially for kids who have a tendency to put too much pressure on themselves. Five out of five cats!