Chris Columbus, Daniel Handler, Golden Gate Bridge, Harry Potter, House of Secrets, Kate DiCamillo, Ned Vizzini, Walker
Max, my nine-year-old son and I, together with his school’s entire fourth grade recently took a walking field trip to Book Passage, a neighborhood bookshop in Corte Madera, California and a reading by Chris Columbus, co-author, with Ned Vizzini, of House of Secrets, an adventure/mystery novel marketed for tweens. I’m not sure who was more excited to hear Mr. Columbus read from his book–we parents or our kids. Although the small stage lacked a proscenium arch, it wasn’t needed as a hundred or so delighted fourth graders sent the fourth wall tumbling down.
Mr. Columbus is an accomplished Hollywood director and producer with the first two Harry Potter movies under his belt as well as more serious fare, such as The Help, for which he received an award from the NAACP. When a slide came up during the presentation showing Mr. Columbus receiving the award, Max turned around to see if I was watching–catching my eye with a knowing nod–thereby registering the importance of the award and my abiding interest in civil rights. I was very proud of him.
I don’t, however, have my finger on the pulse of popular culture and celebrities; I don’t even have cable television. So even I was titillated to meet the flesh and blood Chris Columbus. He was gregarious and funny, with an affectionate enthusiasm, at ease with the nine and ten-year-olds clustered around the podium, soaking up the Hollywood stars who appeared on a projection screen set up behind him. The kids were engaged and there was ample time for lively back-and-forth. Later my son asked me, with some concern, why I wasn’t laughing when everyone else was. I told him, “Oh, I thought he (Columbus) was funny. I was laughing on the inside, even if my brow was furrowed.” During his reading from House of Secrets there were a couple references that sounded an awful lot like product placements, and I may not have have been able to control my eyebrows.
After buying the book for Max (just under $20.00) I figured I ought to read it. It took me three hours and I began to put together the scaffolding for what was initially a review, and now an essay. To my surprise, this tween adventure novel also engenders a parallel back-story, and in this respect, House of Secrets doesn’t disappoint.
My approach to children’s literature is informed by many influences. My favorite authors include Maurice Sendak, Mark Twain, Dr. Suess, Brian Selznick, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Kate DiCamillo. For classics, The Arabian Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Tales come to mind. In her Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature, Rebecca J. Lukens states that children’s literature can be evaluated by its ability to please and inform. I like that. House of Secrets should please with a distinct writing style and imaginative use of language with ample metaphors and imagery. The language, action, plot and themes should also be age appropriate. Perhaps most importantly, children’s literature should help us make sense of our lives and the world we live in. It is our job, as readers, to evaluate those efforts. Elsewhere Lukens argues that well written children’s literature “reveal(s) the institutions of society” and “…clarifies our reactions to institutions by showing appropriate circumstances where people give in to or struggle against them.” After all, it’s important that we interpret and evaluate our world, but we should also change it. I can’t think of a better framework to employ in evaluating House of Secrets.
House of Secrets
The setting for House of Secrets is the present day Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco, an affluent hill community overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Action initially centers on the travails of the three-sibling-mom-dad Walker family down on their luck after the patriarch, a medical doctor, inexplicably enters a fugue state during a surgery only to wake up “…standing over a patient, holding a bloody scalpel” where he has cut an eye shape into a patient’s chest. This unsettling early scene casts a shadow over the father and reflects a jarring tone that returns, from time to time, and is uneven in its relationship to the main characters. A New York Times reviewer cited a casualness towards death as one of the major impediments to the novel achieving ‘Harry Potterdom” kid’s lit currency. I agree with the first part of that argument, but not the second; the Harry Potter series is an undeniable commercial success, but not one of my touchstone references. The family struggles to accept economic uncertainty and a downwardly mobile move into a dilapidated mansion that is for sale at a mysteriously low price. These domestic difficulties are quickly blown away (literally) via a Magic Treehouse-like wind funnel which takes the house, three kids all, into a parallel dimension. The parents disappear.
House of Secrets, as one reviewer put it, “is not a novel that dwells on anything for long” with sections alternatively breezy and frolicking. I found some of the language above my 9-year-old’s ability to decipher, as when the authors use the phrase “irregular sibilance” to describe the sound of highway traffic. While I didn’t have to reach for my Oxford English Dictionary for that one, I’m pretty sure it’s lost on Max.
The novel can be edgy, with Oedipal conflict and murder, “pitch-dark golems,” vivisection, and Latin phrases. There is a mysterious, powerful book–The Book of Doom and Desire–safeguarded by “Lore Keepers” and stored in a casket. The book makes real anything written within it and, if used, would “turn people into Gods.” The kids will, of course, use it. The mysterious tome and the patriarchs who protect it will help us pivot to an actually existing institution–a private, men’s only club–that exists in the real world and forms the basis for this novel’s backstory.
But more on that, later.
There are three books written by Denver Kristoff, the mansion’s original owner, that form the basis for a trilogy of adventures alternatively enjoyed and endured by the three siblings. A character from each book come’s to life in the alternative universe. The first book centers on a British Royal Flying Corps pilot, Will, who becomes the love interest of Cordelia, arguably the book’s heroine. Another book has the Kristoff House, rigged with huge barrels underneath, coming off its foundation and sliding down a steep embankment into the San Francisco Bay. There the kids must confront Pirates and sharks. The third book centers on a colossus called Fat Jagger, a cloying, overwrought depiction of what the pop singer Mick Jagger would look like if he was heavy set. I don’t think we ever find out the giant’s real name. Throughout the three books there is a Wind Witch (a daughter trapped in one book), a Storm King (a Father similarly vexed) and, of course, an evil Queen.
References to King Lear, an Adam and Eve desecration depiction, an Apocrypha Bestiary, female ritualistic sacrifice, Nazis and Satan mark some themes that are left gratefully undeveloped. Maternal, Paternal, and sibling rivalries swirl in multiple dimensions while some characters are not who they seem, only later to be revealed, as with Queen Daphne, who is the daughter of the Kristoff clan’s patriarch but also the Wind Witch in disguise.
The novel does seem to succumb to a failure to reconcile the two worlds in play. This may be the classic problem associated with the paradox of time travel, a contradiction not easily resolved in literature. One young reviewer expressed this by noting she was “shaky about the whole magic thing, like how much magic is there in the real world–is there magic or is it just ‘The Book’?” One method the authors use to ostensibly convey realism, and thereby provide a context for what is happening to our little friends and keep consistent what rules apply in what world, is that of product placement or “pop culture nods.”
Embedding, Plugging and Nodding
At Book Passages Mr. Columbus read from chapter 33 of House of Secrets which features the giant, Fat Jagger. With it’s use of Snickers Bars and Dominoes Pizzas–instead of more generic terms, such as “chocolate bar” or just “pizza”–this section comes off as contrived. These product plugs don’t further the plot, nor do I think represent an artistic flourish–at least I hope this wasn’t an aesthetic choice. Instead, these items feel grafted onto the narrative, perhaps in the hope of conveying a sense of realism, but instead they just stick out. In fact, I would argue that the best sections of the book are those without product plugs. Some of these “nod”-free passages run 5-10 pages in length, such as one set during the San Francisco Earthquake on the origins of the Bohemian Club and the Kristoff Clan (pgs.160-169) and that covering the Lore Keepers (pgs. 228-237). In an odd way, it’s almost better if the authors did receive financial compensation for these plugs, because they mostly detract from the narrative, except when they serve the purpose of relocating, or reestablishing the book’s setting.
It goes without saying that tweens are brand conscious and actively involved in shaping their own consumerism. I would argue that there is also an ethical and political spectrum within which this takes place that parents should pay some mind to. The 1980s punk rock film Repo Man features the clever use of generic brands to undermine corporate power: here beer is called “BEER.” David Fincher’s Fight Club has the director biting the hand that feeds him, showcasing items from corporate sponsors (Apple, Starbucks) being destroyed. More sinister is the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) commissioning a music CD with songs about the evils of crossing the U.S. Border. Finally there is the now legendary Madison Avenue machinations of Big Tobacco. The role product placements play in The House of Secrets falls somewhere between the innocuous (Hellman’s Mayonnaise) and the unnerving (Bohemian Club) and given that the novel is 490-pages (large print) I don’t want to misrepresent the impact of the advertisements on the readability. There are roughly fifty or so brands inserted within the novel, and while some are mentioned repeatedly, they don’t approach the insidiousness of the 6,248 product plugs that appeared during a year of the reality television program, The Biggest Loser.
So, for pleasure we can say House of Secrets doesn’t rise to the level of a classic but does read fairly well and will probably hold the attention of the tween audience for whom it is intended. It could make gobs of money as a film; the original text was apparently a screen-play. 
How does the book help us clarify our relationship to institutions? House of Secrets is structurally and thematically very similar to the Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne popular with my son a few grades back, but with more of what we want with older kids lit: serious themes, more developed characters, involved plots and complex writing. In both series the kids are sucked up a whirlwind and there is a similar set up that New York Times reviewer Marjorie Ingall criticizes as formulaic, going so far as to begin her review with a snarky Q & A: “Want to write a middle-grade fantasy adventure series? It’s easy!” The genre’s common themes are easily recognizable: siblings separated from parents, punchy humor, classic references “but not too many” and a “butt-kicking girl.” While House of Secrets does a decent job of operating according to the genre’s rules, it also treats death “jokily,” Ingall writes, unlike the Harry Potter series “which feels real, and sad.”
A victims’ recounting of domestic violence at the hands of a relative and a proto-feminist outburst during an argument between Cordelia and Will, the Brit pilot and object of Cordelia’s affections, constitute efforts to address gender inequality. Cordelia is defiant at having felt challenged by the man, some years her senior and it appears as though summoning up a Great War stereotype cushions the subject of sexism. But no boundaries are pushed here. I must confess, I prefer more transgressive fare, such as that produced by Kate DiCamillo and Brian Selznick.
The use of “no problemo” to signify the presence of Latinos feels gratuitous and unearned; and besides, the character just ends there. A passing reference to a Native American tribe displays a similar disconnectedness with the broader narrative. Not surprisingly, there are no black people in this story and few people of color.
There is, however, a strong Anglo-American friendship motif through Will the fighter pilot, the colossus Fat (Mick) Jagger and the Bohemian Club itself, with it’s roots in aristocratic, British secret societies. Will is also the only character who makes the transition from fictional character brought to life in the parallel universe to a fictional character brought to life in the novel’s “real world.” Unfortunately the hereditary angle to the story–the Walkers are related to the Kristoffs–reinforces an insular, our-family-against-the-world–aspect of the novel to the exclusion of the children connecting with any broader institutions or struggles.
Despite all the banal product references there are lessons conveyed as with this passage which illustrates the danger of hubris: “The Wind Witch beamed with horrible pride–but like most proud, narcissistic people, she had a tendency to overlook details.” There is also a thinly sketched “resistance” of “freedom fighters” who confront the evil Queen and elsewhere the word “megalomaniac” is followed, correctly, by “Hitler.”
The youngest member of the family, Eleanor, who is dyslexic, saves the day by writing in the Book of Doom and Desire, freeing the family for House of Secrets 2, not yet published. It is unfortunate that such a counterintuitive, deft ending is spoiled by the contemptibly fainthearted decision on the part of the authors to contrive the arrival of a $10 million check for the family. Even if this is an eight-year-old’s “happy ending”, attenuated by the knowledge that the mysterious tome is dangerous and unpredictable and structurally provides a bridge to the forthcoming novel–it still rankles me.
It’s unclear what House of Secrets is saying to kids about the world they live in short of parents are useless, old white men safeguard the world’s repository of magic, hang on tight to your PSP, and the $10 million dollar ($500 million dollar?) check is on the way. In short, the book and filmic versions of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory have more to say about social class and institutions than House of Secrets.
Which brings us to the novel’s backstory. House of Secrets features a group of men called the Lore Keepers who have a “real world”echo: these are the all-male members of the Bohemian Club, an actually existing, exclusive, private club that operates a performing arts venue and restaurant located in downtown San Francisco as well as a yearly retreat convened during the month of July at the Bohemian Grove in nearby Marin County. The Club has a number of Yelp reviews that laud the professionalism of the staff and theatre productions and it is important to point out that this private club, which is incorporated as a non-profit, does have a valuable public function. But membership is private, exclusive and all male. The final sentence of House of Secrets provides the street address for the club.
Club members are 2,500 or so of the most powerful (overwhelmingly) white, rich captains of industry, politics and entertainment in the United States. They also have a decidedly rightward pedigree with Dick Cheney, the late Richard Nixon and a gaggle of people with surnames like Bechtel as members. The club’s retreat at Bohemian Grove has long been the subject of passionate opposition.
It would not be a stretch to say that House of Secrets embeds the Bohemian Club in its pages. Whether this is indicative of a personal or financial interest, I have no way of telling. The Bohemian Club is secret, and if you google the society you will find paltry public statements from officials on any subject. It also appears as though there is an effort underway to burnish the reputation of the club and its controversial yearly retreat. The 2012 retreat featured large, boisterous protests at the encampment.
The yearly bash held at the Bohemian Grove has a more controversial existence than the club and I remember the gathering in the days when I operated a small but effective civil rights think-tank that worked to counter far-right political movements from Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition to neo-Nazi skinheads. Within this heterogenous political milieu it was not uncommon to read about the Bohemian Club together with the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve and the Illuminati as cauldrons of sinister plotting and malevolent conspiracies. I spent more than a decade debunking these paranoid projections of elite power, many overtly anti-semitic. This conspiracy framework is an essential part of the political DNA of the Rand/Ron Paul libertarian right, Tea Partiers and broad swaths of the Christian right. However, there is more than a little truth to the accusation that many of these people don’t have our best interests in mind. After all, I’ll take plebians over patricians any day and you can count me as a critic of exclusive, wealthy, institutions. I just grind, and wield, a different axe than the torch and pitchfork crowd.
The generational struggle so central to the plot of House of Secrets has a “real world” echo within the Bohemian Club. A 2009 Vanity Fair article on the annual Grove gathering exposed an internal battle then underway between some ecologically conscious and perhaps younger club members who object to logging on the Club’s 2,700 acres of pristine forest and those titans of industry, and perhaps older members, who support it. It’s not the kind of publicity the Club and Grove probably enjoy. Although fought largely in the shadows, members have resigned or been blackballed from the club. The Vanity Fair article featured a cloak and dagger infiltration of the Club’s annual bash at the Grove and some really outrageous anecdotes. My favorite has to do with then President Gerald Ford objecting to a real-life Nazi–apparently a regular fixture at the retreat–and his Swastika-adorned jeep. The jeep was too much for President Ford, who had it removed. The other tale that stands out is the propensity for members to urinate in public, amongst the Redwoods. There are limited restrooms at the Grove, and I do derive a bit of guilty satisfaction at the thought of Henry Kissinger having to shuffle his aged frame into the woods to relieve himself amongst the poison oak.
Oddly, the House of Secrets authors don’t make any use of the extraordinary natural wonders that are the Old Growth Redwoods that run from South of San Francisco to the Oregon Coast and provide the outdoorsy setting for the club’s annual retreat. House of Secrets is full of references to generic tree things–“pine needles” and a “forest canopy,” for example. But just when you are looking for that extra detail to convey a sense of realism (such as how Redwood canopies form a natural barrier to fire by holding massive amounts of water, which is why you can be walking through them during a sunny day and still experience a rain shower) we are instead treated to a plug for Red Dead Redemption, Jaws, or Coca Cola.
I think you get my point, here.
The actually existing Bohemian Club and Grove are at once less sinister and more banal than we suppose; while also more powerful than we suspect, but perhaps in more diffuse ways (e.g., a children’s novel) and that are obscure (sometimes deliberately so). Unfortunately, because of the nasty reputation the annual Grove gathering has garnered for itself, we will have to make potentially prejudicial judgments about this society. And I’m one to err on the side of being conservative when it comes to powerful people doing secret things; that is to say, I assume the worst. Unfortunately, House of Secrets largely upholds this arrangement, and in this respect it fails in the understanding department. An ironic picture here emerges: Old white guys so greedy, mendacious and careless as to destroy the very habitat of their club’s mascot (an owl) by cutting down an ecological and cultural treasure (the redwoods).
Of the copious amount of criticism I’ve read concerning the Bohemian Grove, my favorite refrain has been the obligatory “thank God they will be gone in 20 years,” approach, suggesting such old-white-guy-clubs are a thing of the past. But it’s not just the old-white guy thing–after all, I’m one of those. It’s the exclusivity and secrecy that I object to, on the part of anyone with power. Wither the Bohemian Grove in 20 years? Not if our children believe they are the keepers of dreams, discovery, literature, adventure and all those important rites of passage.
It is past time those members of the Bohemian Club concerned about what lessons we teach our children begin the process of disassociating themselves from the excesses of the Grove and the notion that there is any redeemable value to a men’s only social club. Perhaps the Bohemian Grove could be turned into a forest preserve and the Bohemian Club a museum, both opened up to the public. This way we can commemorate these relics of the Twentieth Century when an old, Anglo-American axis ruled the world. There’s only one solution to this, and it’s sunlight, which is why Project Censored (not a far right conspiracy group) participated in last year’s protests at the Grove. It will take more than an admittedly engaging, if flawed, tween adventure novel to reforest the clear-cut that is the Bohemian Grove’s reputation.
 Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, The House of Secrets, New York 2013.
 Rebecca J. Lukens, A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature, New York 1999, pp. 3-4.
 Lukens cites critic Frank Kermode for this insight.
 Rebecca J. Lukens, A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature, New York 1999 p.7.
 Lukens’ touchstone novel is Charlotte’s Web, a masterpiece against which most modern kid’s lit. wilts.
 House of Secrets, p. 42.
 Marjorie Ingall, “The Stuff of Legend,” New York Times, 5 May 2013.
 Graeme Reynolds, Starburst Website, 19 April, 2013.
 House of Secrets, p. 400.
 Review by “The Book Addicted Girl” in The Guardian Books 12 April 2013.
 Some of the products and brands in House of Secrets: PSP, IPhone, 49ers, Giants, Toyota, Sesame Street, Viking, Electrolux, Sub-Zero, Mac Book Air, John Muir Medical Center, Golden Gate Bridge, I Max 3D, Cheerios, Call of Duty, Haagen Dazs, Gray’s Anatomy, Red Dead Redemption, Tylenol, Band Aid, Aleve, Buffy, Jaws, Home Shopping Network, Wikipedia, Red Bull, Coca Cola, Mack Truck, Hello Kitty, Scooby Doo, Green Giant Corn, Cirque du Solieil, Dorritos, Jello, Mickey Mouse, Sonic (video game), The Discovery Channel, Barbie, Disneyland, Michael Jackson, Dunkin Donut and, of course, Mick Jagger, Snickers, and Dominoes Pizza. There is one reference to Lunchables that may be an instance of biting the hand that feeds you.
 I’m using the term “product plug” to describe commercial products and their avatars (brands) intentionally inserted into an entertainment, art or other cultural vessel, that involve a financial relationship between the product/brand owner and that of the vessel, in this case a book. If there is a financial arrangement involved we can call it product placement (plug); if not, following Ingall (NYT 5.6.13), a “pop culture nod.” In the case of the Bohemian Club, I’ll go with “embedded”, a term that perhaps better preserves the institutional connection forged between the Club and the Book. I would be surprised if there wasn’t some financial arrangement between the product sponsors in House of Secrets and the authors/publishers.
 The opening pages of House of Secrets features prodigious use of an IPhone and a PSP. Here the use of specific products helps young readers identify with the characters and begin the psychological process of empathy. Elsewhere, however, these references maintain a forced and unnatural function. A note on usage: All of these terms–product placement and plug, pop culture nod, embedded advertisements–seem outdated, sucked dry of explanatory power, trapped in that bygone era of industrial production we sometimes refer to as the Twentieth Century. Perhaps a new term for what amounts to the plugging, branding and embedding of everything, everywhere, all the time, is warranted.
 Wikipedia “Product Placement” 15 May 2013.
 Wikipedia “Product Placement” 15 May 2013.
 A review by Jonathan Goldhirsch in The Examiner (29 March 2013) has Columbus saying he brought in the writer Vizzini because he had “completed about 90 pages of the script and realized that if I continued writing, this film would cost over 500 million dollars.” During his Q&A with the kids at Book Passage, Columbus was asked by a child about the prospects of a movie and he responded sheepishly that it would cost too much. The exchange struck me as fishing for an exhortation.
 Marjorie Ingall, “The Stuff of Legend,” New York Times, 5 May 2013.
 Marjorie Ingall, “The Stuff of Legend,” New York Times, 5 May 2013.
 Marjorie Ingall, “The Stuff of Legend,” New York Times, 5 May 2013.
 House of Secrets, p. 41.
 House of Secrets, p. 395.
 House of Secrets, pp. 417 and 458, respectively.
 Alex Shoumatoff, “Bohemian Tragedy” in Vanity Fair, 1 May 2009.