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The Art of Secrets


The Art of Secrets

Saba Khan is a tennis-playing sophomore on academic scholarship at an elite Chicago high school who struggles to fit in because her parents are low-income immigrants from Pakistan. Still, she has friends and no one seems prejudiced against her background --- until one day, her family returns home from one of Saba’s tennis matches to find their small apartment aflame, all their possessions and memories reduced to ash in a matter of hours. The fire inspector confirms that it was arson. It looks like a hate crime, perpetrated against Muslim immigrants who are not American enough in spite of their legal citizenship and years of living in the community. 

The Khans struggle to even begin getting back on their feet, until one of Saba’s classmates begins a school-wide fundraising effort. Suddenly, the Khans find themselves living rent-free in an apartment in a luxury high-rise that was temporarily donated by a student’s wealthy parents, and items for a fundraising auction start to accumulate at the school. Among these is an album of strange artwork depicting a story of girls and soldiers in a surreal landscape. The siblings who donated the artwork found it abandoned in an alleyway. No one thinks the album is worth anything --- until the art teacher sees it. It turns out that the artwork’s creator is Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago artist, and the artwork has an insurance value of half a million dollars.

As in life, the questions THE ART OF SECRETS poses do not have easy answers, which is the book’s greatest strength.

Suddenly, everyone is invested in the auction, as people jostle for a piece of the fundraising pie. Can the Khans, the school, and the fundraiser survive the pulling and publicity of half a million dollars in art? And what will happen in the wake of disaster when disaster strikes again?

THE ART OF SECRETS weaves a complicated plot and nuanced characters from Saba’s journal entries, interviews with faculty and students, text messages, emails, newspaper articles, police reports and more. The structural complexity of the novel is never confusing; instead, it allows the many major players to show who they really are through what they say and do. James Klise does not tell us who the teachers, students and community members are --- he shows us, and allows readers to piece together what happens from many angles, which enhances intrigue and suspense in the novel.

This innovative mystery explores issues of secrecy, social class, greed, family, self-justification and the need to belong in one’s community. Saba’s internal and external struggles are realistically specific to her situation, but they will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. As in life, the questions THE ART OF SECRETS poses do not have easy answers, which is the book’s greatest strength.

Reviewed by Quinn Colter on May 7, 2014

The Art of Secrets
by James Klise

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Young Adult 14+
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1616204826
  • ISBN-13: 9781616204822