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*The Secret Under My Skin* by Janet McNaughton- young adult book review


The Secret Under My Skin
by Janet McNaughton
Grades 7+ 368 pages Eos October 2006 Paperback    

Blay Raytee lives in a child labor camp on the island of Terra Nova in the year 2368. All alone in the world, she has no memories of her parents. She lives in a world that has been through an environmental disaster and a subsequent technocaust. During the technocaust, scientists and their families were hunted down and killed because of their technological skills. The Model Social Welfare Project, where Blay now lives and works, houses dozens of street kids working on the local landfill site near the town of St. Pearl to reclaim useable objects. Government controls all aspects of society; it is a world with very little hope or joy.

Since Blay is a good reader, she is chosen to help Marrella, a bio-indicator (a person who is hyper-sensitive to environmental changes), get ready for the tests before her investiture ceremony. Blake is not only a good reader, but she has also explored many other topics – even Shakespearean poetry. Her work with Marrella brings her into a new world. “I hold up my head up as we leave. I was chosen. Nothing will ever be the same.” (p. 30)

She goes to live in Master William Townsend’s house and becomes an essential part of the household. Erica, the master’s wife, thinks of her as part of the family. Blay has also become a great help to Marrella - in fact, she actually answers the questions for Marrella to help her pass her tests. When Erica introduces her to the reclusive Lem Howell, he begins to research Blay’s past. Lem was one of the scientists persecuted during the technocaust. His wife died, and he has lost his son because of his devotion to science.

We soon discover a great deal about Blay’s past. She has a microdot implanted under her skin which reveals her age, her real name, and her place of birth. She finds out that she is in fact 16 years old – not 13, as she believes. She finds out that she was kidnapped from her mother by Hilary, a homeless child who raised her. Her true name is Blake Raintree, and her quest for identity leads her to adventure, enlightenment, and danger. Will she find her parents alive? Will she find a new family? What will she do with her new knowledge?

Janet McNaughton’s first science fiction novel explores some very fundamental issues in our society: child poverty, homelessness, environmental changes, literacy, revolution and technology. Her previous novels were historical fiction. Her To Dance at the Palais Royale won the Geoffrey Bilson Award, and The Secret Under My Skin has also won several awards and critical acclaim. More recently, McNaughton has written a sequel about Blake Raintree’s adventures entitled The Raintree Rebellion.

A longtime resident of Newfoundland, McNaughton uses that beautiful but remote land as the backdrop. Although the towns of Kildevil and St. Pearl are not real locations, the landscapes were inspired by Gros Morne National Park on the west coast of Newfoundland and the area of the Tablelands located in the park. This area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. This barren land is full of amazing geological formations, but little vegetation grows here. Since one of the major themes in this novel is environmental change, this primitive backdrop seemed a very fitting setting for her novel.

The characters in this novel experience some very difficult times. Blake is left homeless and alone as a very young child. She lives with the Tribe, a group of homeless children, and is relentlessly hunted by the government. The revelations about her past cause her great grief. However, her role in beginning the revolution will bring her new avenues to explore. Readers will be able to relate to the courageous but vulnerable main character.

This novel is beautifully written. McNaughton respects her readers enough to not make the story an easy one to read. The future is dangerous, fraught with violence and treachery. Children are hunted and killed by mysterious strangers; governments deliberately lie to their constituents; concentration camps are a recent memory; ecological disaster is an ever-present reality; democracy is being preserved by the Weavers Guild of women. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, McNaughton sums up her back theme:
“The future I’ve envisioned in The Secret Under My Skin is not the way things have to be, but it is the future I’m afraid we’ll create if we don’t work to change things. I firmly believe the next generation can do a better job of taking care of the earth and its people than we have until now.” (p. 353)

Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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  Myra Junyk/2006 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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