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Review: The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

Published by Ransom, August 2013. RRP £6.99. Appropriate for ages 7-12.

From the cover:

‘In the attic of his house, Sam finds a leather case that belonged to his great great grandfather, Freddy Ovel. The case contained a diary, and as Sam begins to read it, he is taken right back to just before the First World War, when Freddy was a boy. Sam also finds a photograph an discovers that at his age, Freddy was his exact double. 

The diary unlock more than just the events of the war, however. Sam discovers there is much more to ‘Freddy’ than meets the eye – not only heroic wartime deeds and terrible injuries, but also some very dark secrets indeed.’

Ransom specialises in books and resources for young readers with specific requirements, such as reluctant readers and those for whom reading is particularly difficult. Their  Cold Fusion series, from which The Secret Message is taken, aims to develop the skills of advanced readers, offering stories that require a little more concentration, cognitive ability and critical thinking in the context of plots and subject matter appropriate for middle-grade children. Precocious kids are notoriously difficult to buy for, so this series has the potential to address a real gap in the market.

The Secret Message is as much an activity book as it is a  novel, which is just as well as the plot is hackneyed and threadbare, relying on tropes that are weary even when read through the eyes of a ten-year-old.

But the plot is not the point of the book. The plot is a delivery system for brain-training exercises and supplementary information designed to whet the appetite of the inquisitive mind. It’s simple but unpatronising, predictable but never ridiculous. From the beginning we are encouraged to join in on the protagonists problem solving, decoding ciphers and running to look up references, to become part of the journey and invest ourselves in the outcome.

Taking advantage – some might say cashing in – on the upcoming centenary of the beginning of the First World War, The Secret Message takes the conflict as its backdrop. Through protagonist Freddy we are introduced gently to the horrors of World War One, and to the frequent fates of its younger combatants. Pitched to coincide with Key Stage 3, where classes begin to study the wars for the first time, the book is at once accessible and challenging, offering a jumping off point for independent study into aspects of war not covered by the curriculum.

The idea of using literature to stimulate interest new concepts is not a new one, but it is a great one. I would’ve liked to see a more challenging narrative, but the additional excercises make this a fun read. 7/10

My thanks to Adam at Ransom for sending a copy for review

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