Cassandra prides herself on being ready for anything, but she’s not ready for the Symphony of Smells – a strange chest full of vials that once belonged to a magician, and that appears one day at her grandfathers’ antique shop. With her new friend Max-Ernest, Cass investigates the magician’s disappearance – and finds herself battling an ancient society, the Midnight Sun, that is seeking the key to immortality. Soon Cass and Max-Ernest join the benevolent Terces Society along with their new friend Yo-Yoji, but the plots of the Midnight Sun grow ever more diabolical, and the mysteries surrounding our heroes grow ever more complex.
There’s a lot to like about these books. They are a blatant Lemony Snicket ripoff, true, but unlike many copycats, Bosch apes the style well. They’re engaging, the mythology is fresh and interesting, and the main characters are all likable. For the most part, I really enjoy reading these books, and did they not possess a couple of troubling elements, they’d probably run a strong four cupcakes. But those elements are so problematic that they overshadow the basically decent core of the books:
1. There are supporting characters in the series, most prominent in the second book, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, called the Skelton Sisters. They’re a pair of twins, Romi and Montana, who are actress-singers with a huge media empire. They are most directly a parody of the Olsen twins (which is weird enough on its own, because the target audience for this books is not old enough to remember the Olsen twins at their tweeny peak), but more generally a parody of tween girl culture and marketing, with a nod towards Hannah Montana.
Just on the face of it, that’s problematic because Bosch is mocking things targeted at tween girls, and all the tween girls who like those things, and that’s half of his audience, so I’m fairly uncomfortable with the Skelton Sisters to begin with. But the bigger problem is the issue of food. The Skeltons are members of the semi-immortal Midnight Sun and thus don’t need to eat – and don’t eat, thus making themselves so skinny that they are described as grotesques. However, they’re obsessed with food and at one point force a 12-year-old girl to eat a cupcake so that they can watch (after first trying to build up her resistance by telling her she’s a fat pig).
So, first of all, issues of eating disorders and food consumption are extremely complicated, especially for women. In a culture where girls are told they must be thin at all costs, the problem is with the culture and not the girls. So maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be mocking people struggling with eating disorders? Eating disorders aren’t fun or funny. People don’t have them for kicks. They are serious medical issues. And since there are plenty of fat jokes in these books too, maybe these conflicting, poisonous messages shouldn’t be fed to the 10-year-olds who are going to be reading these books? “You must be thin without trying to be thin, or you’re a bad person,” is a pretty shitty moral for a kids’ book.
But more specifically, the Skelton Sisters are a very, very obvious parody of the Olsen twins. And Mary Kate Olsen’s eating disorder is public knowledge. So Bosch isn’t just making fun of eating disorders generally, he’s publicly making fun of one particular real life human being with an eating disorder.
And I don’t care if the kids today don’t know about Mary Kate’s medical issues or if Bosch didn’t really think through what he was saying. It’s reprehensible.
2. This Book Is Not Good for You features a little girl named Simone who is stolen from her family on the Ivory Coast and brought to America, where she’s kept in a cage and forced to taste chocolate. The climax of the book takes place at a cacao plantation, where the villains force presumably stolen African or African-American children to dig through monkey feces in order to find cacao beans that have been digested by the monkeys. At one point, the Skelton Sisters grab one of the little boys and try to take him home, because they’re very good with pets. Later, Cass discovers a sculpture of that same little boy.
Now, I’m aware that all of these atrocities are committed by the villains. The book does not condone any of these actions.
It does, however, make light of them.
Simone’s abduction is impossible to separate from its historical context, where African children were taken from their families and forced to labor for Americans. And the plantation is impossible to separate from its current context, where such things actually happen. Bosch even mentions the concept of “blood chocolate” (chocolate made with slave labor), but in a flippant way that completely dismisses and trivializes the issue.
Look, some things just aren’t funny. And joking about the very real, current issue of slave labor normalizes it. It turns an atrocity (abducted children being forced to dig through feces) into a punchline (they throw it at the bad guys! ha ha, poop is funny!). The scene where Cass happens upon the chocolate sculpture, an image that perfectly literalizes the commodification and consumption of third world children, made me sick to my stomach in a way that I doubt was Bosch’s intent.
Again, I’m aware that Bosch isn’t endorsing slave labor, the blood chocolate trade, or stealing children. But the total disregard for the seriousness of the issue and the insensitivity of making characters like Simone minor plot points to add (no pun intended) color to the narrative of his white heroes is appalling.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Secret Series is, for the most part, enjoyable. The characters are likable, the prose is funny, and the story is strong. But the problematic treatment of eating disorders and child slavery bring the grade way down. The Name of This Book Is Secret gets four cupcakes, while If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and This Book Is Not Good for You get two cupcakes each, bringing the series average down to two and a half cupcakes. I’ll probably finish reading the series, but I’ll be doing it through the library and not spending money on the rest of the books.
Tags: Pseudonymous Bosch