My Secret War Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Mary Pope Osborne's second contribution to the Dear America series, My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, shows young readers what is was like to be an adolescent living in America when the United States entered the war. Maddie's diary is filled with intrigue, acts of patriotism, and love.
Maddie tells the story of Nazi saboteurs who came ashore on a Long Island beach. Through her diary readers learn about victory gardens, rationing, and war bonds. Maddie's first love is juxtaposed against a daughter's never-ending concern for her father fighting in the war. Like most Americans at home, Maddie and her friends hunger for radio broadcasts and newspaper accounts of the war and pray that a uniformed soldier will not appear at their door with the dreaded telegram announcing the death or injury of a loved one.
Like Maddie, Mary Pope Osborne's father was a career military officer. Osborne says, "Growing up in the fifties and sixties, my brothers and I often heard stories from our dad about his WW II experiences in New Guinea and stories from our mom about waiting for him on the home front. I first heard about Nazi U-boats patrolling in American waters while we were living on an army base on the coast of Virginia. As my brothers and I played on the abandoned coastal artillery emplacements once used to defend the shore, we imagined what it would have been like to confront the enemy on the beach. Many years later, I read that Nazi saboteurs had actually come ashore on Long Island in 1942. That story captured my imagination and I seized upon it as the centerpiece of Maddie's story." My Secret War will capture the imagination of today's young readers and bring to life the stateside experiences of living during World War II.
Madeline (Maddie) Beck has lived in many places and spent a lot of time apart from her career navy officer dad, but "this time feels different from the other times. It feels ominous." And so it is. Less than three months after Maddie and her mother move to Mrs. Hawkins's Mansion-by-the Sea on Long Island, New York, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the United States is thrust into World War II. Her dad is no longer "on assignment to just 'safeguard' the Pacific anymore. Now he's there to fight." Maddie's thoughts turn from trying to fit in with the popular girls in her eighth grade class to doing something for the war effort, or as her dad says, "to keep the home fires burning."
With her friend Johnny Vecchio, Maddie organizes the K3F (Kids Fight for Freedom) Club at school. As their classmates get involved in collecting scrap metal and gathering supplies for the servicemen's club, romance blossoms between Johnny and Maddie. The war effort seems fun as they volunteer as sky-watchers, participate in a blackout, and look for German U-boats along the coast.
Then, a telegram arrives bringing news that Maddie's father has been critically wounded. Maddie is devastated and holes up in her room, grieving. The other people living in the boarding house rally around Maddie and her mother. Maddie is especially comforted by Clara Rosenthal, a young German refugee, who saw her own father beaten to death by Nazi storm troopers.
Knowing that she must "face the darkness," Maddie begins to take night walks along the beach, even though it's against the law. She happens upon two foreign sounding strangers who claim to be coast guard members. On further investigation, however, Maddie and Johnny discover a secret cache of explosives and Nazi uniforms buried in the sand. An anonymous call to the FBI by Maddie results in the capture of four Nazi saboteurs planning to destroy industrial plants and transportation networks. When the story is printed in the newspaper, Maddie wonders if she and Johnny have changed the course of history.
News comes that Maddie's father is alive and recuperating in a San Francisco hospital. Maddie and her mother make plans to join him. Their departure is bittersweet. Maddie is joyously anticipating seeing her father again, but sad to be leaving Johnny and her "family unit" at the boarding house. Inspired by Clara's courage, Maddie says, "It gives me hope for myself. It gives me hope for the whole world."
Thinking About the Book
- Why do you think the book is called My Secret War?
- What is Maddie's first impression of the other people living at the boarding house? How has her opinion of them changed by the end of the book? What has caused this change?
- Why do Johnny and Maddie form the K3F Club? What activities does the K3F get involved in?
- What was a victory garden, and why were Americans asked to grow them during World War II?
- Divide these words and phrases up among the members of your discussion group. Define them and explain each one's importance in the story.
- Civil Defense Force
- rendezvous with destiny
- deadly microbe
- volunteer sky-watchers
- Throughout the diary Maddie tries to discover Clara's story. What is her story? Explain what Theo means when he says, "Clara has faced the darkness and won the war."
- Why does Maddie write these words on June 23, 1942? "If anything happens to me — Mom, I love you so much, and Dad, I love you so much? And Clara, and everybody in this house — I love you all."
- How does Maddie's attitude about war change from the beginning of her diary to the end?
- At the conclusion on Maddie's diary she wonders, "Did Johnny Vecchio and I change the course of history?" What does she mean? Do you think they did?
- Music is an important part of Maddie's life. See if you can find recordings of some of the popular songs of the 1940s that Maddie mentions. In your discussion groups compare those songs with your favorites today. How are they different? How are they similar? Why do you think these songs were especially popular at this time in American history? Here are some of the songs Maddie mentions:
- "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good"
- "To Each His Own"
- "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"
- "You Made Me Love You"
- Johnny and Maddie invent a secret code so that they can leave messages for each other and no one will be able to read what they have written. In each of your discussion groups invent a secret code. Now have each group write a sentence about Maddie's diary in their secret code and put it on the board for the whole class to see. See if you can crack these codes and read the secret sentences.
- Choose one of the sayings from My Secret War and explain what it means.
- "Keep the home fires burning."
- "Victory does not come without a price."
"Rendezvous with destiny"
- "Shhh. Fight against loose talk."
- Using the recipe for War Cake in the back of the diary (and help from an adult if you need it), make this dessert. Also make a regular cake using a cake mix from the grocery store. Ask each member of your class or discussion group to taste both cakes and see if they can discover which is the War Cake. Why did folks during Maddie's time use this special cake recipe?
- Maddie and her friends often use some slang words that were once popular with young people. Look back through the diary and find examples where the characters used words such as keen, jeepers, holy smokes, and whoopee. What current words would you replace these "old" words with?
- Posters were a popular way to motivate citizens to join in the war effort. Look at the ones in the back of My Secret War. How are these posters persuasive? Which is the most persuasive, in your opinion?
- Design a poster that would make children want to join Maddie and Johnny's K3F Club.
- After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Maddie tells readers that many Japanese living in America (including American citizens) were rounded up as a safeguard against sabotage. Read what it was like to have your possessions taken away and your whole family placed in detention camps in Barry Denenberg's My Name Is America book The Journal of Ben Uchida.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.