________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 23. . . .February 16, 2018


Secrets of the Painted Door.

Pepper Couélle-Sterling.
Fernie, BC: Oolichan Books, 2016.
192 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-0-88982-319-8.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Jen Seper.

** /4



The full moon lit the garden path through the trees and up to the house. Stephano pondered, “Could it have been a month since Anna was pulled into the painting? Maybe not, but the moon is as bright whatever the phase.” He had collected all the plants he thought might be necessary. The satchel was bulging, and after a full day’s work, Stephano was tired but ready for any possible adventures the evening might offer. Anna was waiting. She had her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, dressed in jeans and sneakers and carrying a backpack containing extra food, a pen knife, some camo duct tape, and of course, a couple of books. Stephano could feel her determination. Together they went up to the studio. Anna opened the varnish and painted some over the empty canvas. Stephano prepared the incense according to the ingredients he knew from harvesting them for Grandfather. Soon the familiar smell of varnish and incense filled the studio. The Parthenon canvas was perched on the easel in front of the day bed where the children sat down together. “This feels rather silly,” commented Stephano, “waiting here staring at this painting.”


Anna is a bright, curious 11-year-old with a passion for knowledge and adventure. Her parents are well-known archaeologists who spend far more time travelling the globe than they do with their young daughter. Anna is accustomed to this situation but is still worried that her upcoming summer with her eccentric artist grandfather will be boring. Little does she know that she will travel further afield in her grandfather’s island home than her parents will by flying around the globe.

      Soon after Anna arrives at her grandfathers home, she meets Stephano, the son of her grandfather’s gardener and an expert in herb lore. One day as the two children are exploring the gardens, they stumble upon a group of robed figures engaged in a secretive ceremony. Anna’s grandfather confides in them that he is a member of the “Secret Society of Alchemists and Artists”. The group has a complicated mandate that involves using Newton’s Laws to study magic, arts, and the creation of gold. Before the pair have time to learn more about what this involves, Anna accidentally travels to a mysterious world through one of her grandfather’s paintings. From the friendly, webbed toed Pisceans she meets; Anna learns more about the Secret Society and some of the dangers that they are up against, namely an evil ex-society member named Malum. Malum is obsessed with finding the lost formula to make gold. It takes Anna two weeks to find her way back to her world, but no time has passed for those that she left behind.

      Travelling with Stephano and her grandfather via paintings, Anna visits ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Medieval France. The group is pursued by Malum who is also able to travel through time. The children have many adventures, scrapes and near misses, but are able to evade injury or capture by using their wits and Stephano’s herbal concoctions until Malum finally traps them in Paris and whisks them off to work in the countryside. The two children must figure out a way to escape and return to Paris, locate Anna’s grandfather, and find their way back to their own time.

      While the storyline of the book is suitable for ages 9-13, there is a considerable amount of advanced vocabulary in the book related to the plot and settings. References are made to glyphs, gynaikon, chitons, amphorae, various gods and goddesses, Newton’s Laws, Latin plant names, all without sufficient explanation as to what these terms mean. There is also a great deal about the medicinal properties of rare plants. While some readers may be interested in some of these topics, there seems to be a great deal of information for a younger reader to take in, and, at times, the overwhelming number of terms makes the action difficult to follow. However, older readers may find the plot and dialogue too childlike for their tastes. Readers may also be somewhat confused as to how Anna is able to easily communicate with the people she meets in different time periods and countries, as this ability is never explained. There are also few hints as to what time period that the story takes place in or where in North America the story is set. This lack of information and orientation is disorienting and makes it more difficult to picture the setting of the book.

      That being said, Secrets of the Painted Door is fast-paced and filled with adventure. The characters are likeable, resourceful and resilient. The author has clearly researched the historical time periods visited in the books, as well as information about plants and their medicinal uses. Some of these facts are awkwardly inserted into the action and dialogue, but, if the reader can get past that, the imaginative plot is enjoyable. Secrets of the Painted Door contains a good blend of fantasy, fact, science, and adventure that will appeal to a broad audience.

Recommended with Reservations.

Jen Seper is the Library Manager of the Nanaimo North Branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library.

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