The Year of Secret Assignments
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
Every year I have a group of students who are voracious readers, always on the hunt for a good book. They stalk my classroom library looking for something to devour, and I don't like to disappoint them. A recent addition to my stacks is The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty.
This book has proven to be a huge hit with my students. TYOSA is a comedy of manners with a brash and bubbly flow that both intrigues (and sometimes confounds) my students.
One of the most compelling things about this novel is that it is set in New South Wales — so there are some cultural differences (for instance, they say "petrol" for "gasoline" and "crisps" for "french fries"). I thought this added a nice flavor to the book. TYOSA is also written in a style that is becoming increasingly popular with young adult writers: the story is told in emails, letters, journal entries, and text messages. This helps the tale move along at a very bouncy pace.
Ashbury sophomores Cassie, Emily, and Lydia are forced to take part in a pen pal project with rival school, Brookfield. While Lydia and Emily meet boys they eventually become interested in (the courtships are cute and clever), Cassie's pen pal proves to be malicious and cruel, and very quickly the girls spring into action to protect their friend. The resulting missions, or secret assignments, and the flirting, romance, and danger make for a fast-paced read most teenagers love. Despite a sometimes somewhat far-fetched plot, the book deals with important issues, including the death of a parent, bullying, and the importance of friendship.
As an adult, I found the book to be very silly at times. But that was exactly what drew my students to it: they said it was good escapist reading. And although it was sometimes tough to keep track of the many characters, their occupations, their parents' occupations, their boyfriends, etc., students found the book to be mostly fun and light-hearted, even though Cassie's pen pal introduces a touch of darkness.
Hannah, a shy, quiet, and very intelligent girl in my senior Mysteries class, told me she loved TYOSA "because the girls in the story reminded me of my friends and me. Cassie, Emily, and Lydia are wrapped up completely in each other's lives, know each other's secrets, and are fiercely loyal, the exact same way my friends and I are. I could see myself reacting to the situations in the book much the same way the girls did."
Carmelita, an Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition student, wanted a break from the dense reading she did for class. "Please, give me something to read that I don't have to analyze!" she begged me. "I just want to read something light that will take me away from the stresses of being a student." I gave her TYOSA, and she loved it. "I read this in one weekend. For a couple of hours a day, I could escape inside the craziness of this book," she said.
"I really liked this book, Miss. But c'mon, you can't write that in your blog! That's not cool; I'm a dude," Jaylen, a senior boy and football player, told me. "I mean, it's kind of a girls' book. But you know what? That's okay. I'll say it: This is a good book, and anyone would like it — boy or girl. I'm going to stand behind that."
Ms. Moriarty also wrote The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie, another book that looks at high school life and friendship, so that might be the next addition to my library. Book Wizard also points out that The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake, a 1999 Coretta Scott King and John Steptoe Award Winner, is a similar but more realistic book with hard-hitting themes.