Secret Saturdays by Torrey Maldonado ARC Publisher: Putnam
IQ "For me, I first had to see if I was a stereotype of a man. Next, I had to stop being that stereotype and act differently. It's hard. When I changed, some of my friends acted weird. Some made jokes. But others were true friends. I was real with them and they were real right back. Meaning they didn't put me down and they helped me work through my issues." pg. 184
Release Date: April 15, 2010
Secret Saturdays tells the story of two best friends, Sean and Justine (the narrator). Both boys are in 6th grade and half Black, half Puerto Rican and they live in the same building in the Red Hook Projects (NYC). The boys used to be really close, but Sean starts to act suspiciously, hang with the wrong crowd and less with Justine and their other friends. Sean used to get good grades and only verbally abuse people (more on that later), now he's getting in fights and failing tests. Justine suspects this has to do with Sean's secret Saturday trips, he has noticed that Sean and his mother leave early on Saturdays and disappear for the day. Justine wants his friend back and he's determined to get to the bottom of the secret Saturdays.
The plot of this book is original and then again it isn't. I thought the secret Saturday visits were obvious but that may be because I'm older than the main characters and I think younger readers may not be able to figure it out, but I had two guesses and halfway through the novel I was able to confidently say I knew what would happen. That was really the only thing I didn't like about the book. Along with the fact that some characters were cliches but that was mostly the minor ones, like Sean's crush, Vanessa could have been better developed as well as Sean and Justin's other friend, Kyle. Also, the author oculd have described New York a little better to really help readers visualize the setting (I liked the idea of Grey House though, adding a little creepy/ghost story). The only other thing I didn't like was how I couldn't really relate to Justin or Sean. Not because they're guys, but because they felt too young. I really like in middle grade novels when you can relate to the main character, even if they're younger, that wasn't the case with Secret Saturdays but the novel was still enjoyable.
A minor character that I thought was very well-written was Ms. Feeney, Sean and Justin's teacher. she could have easily become the cliche teacher who doesn't care or the cliche tough-but-fair-teacher but the author does a good job of making sure she is a good mix. She tries to inspire her students and get them to see their potential and reach out to them, but she also gets really frustrated with them and makes assumptions that she shouldn't. The reader gets to know Sean, Justin and Justin's mother very well and they mature slowly and painfully (but in a good/needed way), both boys lose their innocence (especially about friendship). Both boys love to freestyle and they are quite talented, I'm amazed that 12 year olds could come up with the rhymes they did, I'm 16 and I still wouldn't be able to do that! With so few words and a good beat, both boys use poetry and freestyle to express themselves and it's deep.
My favorite aspect of Secret Saturdays is the message. At the heart of the novel is the issue of stereotypes concerning males and how guys have to be tough as Justin's mom says "Boys and men out here think they can't ever be sensitive because that's considered soft or gay. And if the next guy shows some gentle emotion, they say he's soft or gay." (pg. 191, ARC so quotes and page numbers may change). I couldn't agree more. Boys are considered weak if they cry or express emotion and that's so wrong. I think it's endearing and cute when guys show emotion and I respect them for it. I don't want them crying in public over nothing (ahem Brett Favre!) but if something tragic happens (Hurricane Katrina, earthquake in Haiti, family tragedy), I don't have a problem with guys crying in public. To be honest, I think most of these stereotypes prevail in largely ethnic neighborhoods, but it does affect all guys, I just think it affects POC males more (macho comes from Spanish!).
The other key issue is verbal vs. physical bullying. To often we are taught that "First, people fight when their feelings are hurt. Second, you can fight with your hands or your mouth. Third, people who fight with their hands are too dumb to beat up somebody with their words." Or "Dis or get dissed on." I was even taught this mentality by my father! He's always taught me to have a comeback ready because if someone hurts me I shouldn't fight with fists, but with words since words can be more hurtful. Honestly, I never realized the error of this thinking, I always thought that's so true, because if I'm always quick on my feet, ready with a comeback whenever people try to cut me down, they'll think twice before insulting me. This is true but it's not right and Secret Saturdays helped me realize that. The mentality shouldn't be dissed or get dissed on (Note: I hate Your Mom/Yo Momma jokes. Don't diss people's mothers!) but that's the culture we live in and again it's most prevalent in the urban neighborhoods and amongst school age children. In this book, the kids tease each other mercilessly about their families; poverty, drug use, alcoholism, dead-beat fathers, etc. But they all have issues! They tease each other to hide that and it's so frustrating but it's also understandable. The author does a great job of helping readers to see why the kids act the way they do and force us to question why verbal abuse is often ignored and only physical abuse gets attention, to often the results can both be tragic and even if they don't end in tragedy, they are both very hurtful.
After finishing Secret Saturdays I had to think about it because my initial reaction was that the book was just ok, but that was largely in part because I needed to work through my own issues. Once I really looked inside myself and acknowledged that maybe this book was right, I felt that I could write a more through and honest review. All in all, I didn't think the writing was the best, but I thought the originality of the plot and the message behind (the pressure of guys to be tough and verbal abuse) the novel is so very needed in today's world that I would recommend it to all young boys (and girls, but guys especially need to read this book). I intend on having my little brother read this book in a year. 6th grade and up.
Disclosure: Received from the publisher. Thank you Stacey (Putnam)!