The Secret Room, by Antonia Michaelis

Antonia Michaelis is the author of three YA books translated from the original German into English--Tiger Moon, Dragons of Darkness, and 2012's The Storyteller.   The Secret Room (Sky Pony Press, October, 2012) is, as far as I know, her first middle grade book to be translated.  

Achim has lived all his life in an orphanage, and he's pretty sure that, because of his asthma,  he'll never be adopted. But then Paul and Inez come, and want him to be their son.  Their own little boy died years ago.  If he had lived, he would be the same age as Achim.

In the house of Paul and Inze there is a secret room, where no room could really exist, a prison tower with strange paintings on the walls.  And in that secret room, Achim meets Arnim, his lost brother.

Arnim is trapped, unable to move beyond the tower room to fly free into what lies beyond.   To free him, Achim must become a bird, and fly to the palace of the dark and terrible Nameless One, built of stones of longing and sadness, stolen by Nameless One, and it is surrounded by trees full of caged birds, who had themselves tried and failed to free their own loved ones.

To succeed where they failed, Achim  must solve a series of riddles and conquer his fears, while navigating the dangers of the Nameless One.  Day after day, he slips through the paintings in the secret room, journeying ever closer to the answer he needs.  

But it is in the real world where Achim will find what he needs to free his brother, because what is really imprisoning Arnim is grief and loss, both that of Paul and Ines, and Achim's own, barely recognized sadness that he himself lost his own parents.  As Achim, Paul, and Inez become a new family, ready to love each other, the chances that Achim can free his ghost brother grow....

So in part this book is a fantasy quest, a hero's journey through a magical realm, where he is armed only with bravery, compassion, and his wits, and the help of magical birds.  In the larger story arc, though, the fantasy elements are an extended metaphor, highlighting and complementing the truly moving poignancy of Achim's journey into a new family.

This real world side of things was tremendously worthwhile reading--my heart ached for Achim, breaking a plate and hiding it under his mattress in stress and shame, and  trying to keep his asthma a secret, in case Paul and Inez didn't want a child they had to worry about.   And my heart ached for the grown-ups, too, as they carefully try not to think too hard about the son they lost, and try to make a family with their new son.

The fantasy side of things is, up till the great confrontation at the end, somewhat dreamlike and unhurried--it might not appeal to every young reader.   Indeed, it's the sort of book that will be just right for just the right child--the introspective one, the one who loves metaphorical stories, may well love this book, find it incredibly powerful, and appreciate the rich descriptions immensely.

I don't think its for everyone, though--kids who are avid consumers of modern American fantasy might find it lacking in zippy immediacy and too surreal, and they might find Achim's very mater-of-fact narrative voice distancing.  These kids, however, might well find their interest picking up toward the end, when things start to really get going, and a knife turns into a flying horse (!) and the Nameless One attacks...

On the other hand, I'm happy to recommend it to adult readers of fantasy who enjoy Fun with Metaphor.   As an adult, it was the real world side that gripped me most, and so I'd primarily recommend it to those who love stories of orphaned children trying to find a loving place in the world....And I'd also suggest keeping this one in mind to give to kids who might themselves have loss and grief in their lives, who might find comfort here.  That being said, it's not a book with a message of "helping kids deal with death" front and center, but rather a story in which letting go, with love, those who have died, is the central theme.

I sure hope, though, that The Secret Room does well enough here in the US that its sequel gets published in English too (so please do go seek it out).  This particular fantasy adventure has ended, but I care very much about Achim and Paul and Inez and want more of them.

The German title of the book is Das Adoptivzimmer, which translates as The Adopted Room, and the German blurb on Goodreads underlines this metaphorical connection that I missed.  The secret room is not part of the real house, but is there on sufferance---adopted, like Achim himself.

I'm not sure which cover I like better--the American one, which emphasises the emotional weight of the story, but is kind of depressing, or the German one, which I think has more overt kid-appeal, but which might be misleading....this not being a bubbly fantasy fun type book.

Here's another review, at Kid Lit Reviews

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)


  1. I find German translations, for some reason, seem to translate pretty well into English. Although any translated book nearly always seems rich and strange and a bit convoluted.

    Thanks for your review. I'll have to put this one on my list of books to consider... I do know some middle-grade readers who are just like that: kind of dreamy and introspective.

    1. I wish I knew more languages, so that I could read the originals!

  2. Wow, what a great review. I haven't ever heard of Antonia Michaelis, but I;m always looking for interesting German MG and YA. We're teaching our kids German as their second language, and I like to read books in advance of giving/reading them to our kids.

    1. She's written quite a number of books, including more for younger readers, so she might fit the bill nicely for you!

  3. Your review makes me want to go out and find the book, so good job. Of course, I can't read it until the TBR Dare is over...

    1. I could never do your TBR dare....it would take me at least a year, and that would be too long!

  4. This sounds very appealing, right up my alley. Thanks for the great review--I'd not come across this title yet!

  5. Wow, if I judged books only by their covers, I would want to read the English version but not the German one--they're so different. I am interested in the orphan angle since our two children spent the first part of their lives in an orphanage in Russia. From your description, it sounds like the book doesn't romanticize orphans as much as some books, which is positive. btw, have you ever considered having a search feature on your blog?

    1. No, I'd say it doesn't romanticize orphans at all, though this particular boy does end up in a happy and hopeful situation.

      There is a search thing, actually, up in the top left...

  6. I haven't heard of this book but it sounds interesting. I've noticed orphans are a frequent theme in books for kids... something about having no parents makes a character intriguing. Thanks for sharing at The Children's Bookshelf.


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