By Steven Andreen, Jessica Berry, Rachel Forbes, Aiden Knapp, and Blaise Netzer
A wandering goblin theatre troupe. A witch with gearwork chicken legs. Elaborate masks. An immanent and deadly flood.
These are elements of the world William Alexander has created in his fantasy novel Goblin Secrets, for children ages eight and up. The traditional story of an orphan searching for a family and his place in the world dons a strange and steampunk mask in the land of Zombay, where acting has been outlawed. Orphaned years ago, Rownie and his older brother live with Graba, a witchworker, who takes in anyone who has nowhere to go and uses them to do her bidding. Rownie keeps his head down and does what he must, until one day his brother goes missing after putting on a secret, masked performance in an alehouse. There are severe punishments for wearing masks in Zombay, but Rownie hopes for the best and leaves Graba to look for the only family he has left. On his journey, he meets a traveling troupe of goblins who knew his brother and who hope to teach Rownie the same love and affinity for the theatre that his brother had. With their help, he continues his search, learns the art of wearing masks, and discovers the part he must play in saving Zombay from a disastrous flood.
The novel touches on many themes including brotherhood, fear of change, and mistrust of fantasy and theatre, but none of these are featured so prominently as the idea of masking. Alexander explores the positive and negative aspects of wearing masks by having both his protagonists and antagonists use them. Some, like the mayor, put up false-fronts for gain; others, like Graba, force underlings into submission until they are nothing more than mouthpieces. These characters use masking for deceit, but Rownie and his fellow actors use it to aid the willing suspension of disbelief. When one of the goblins puts on a mask and declares himself a giant, Rownie reflects, “it was true because he said that it was true” (34). That magical space that actors and audiences, and in fact storytellers and readers, enter when they let themselves believe in fantasy is a valuable teaching tool. The goblins put on shows at different points of the story, each time presenting the crowd with a moral. In a more gradual and profound way, masking teaches Rownie his own capacity and worth. This especially comes in handy when Graba realizes he has run away and tries to use her minions to find him and bring him back. When he is cornered by them, Rownie is wearing a fox mask and taunts them: “You will not catch me,” he said, and as he said it, he knew that it was true” (112). The mask does not change him; it simply lets him explore himself to discover the wily cleverness he always had but had never before unleashed.
The story is told through Rownie’s point of view in a world so different from our own that we are forced to look at it through the eyes of a child, making this novel both a veritable playground for the imagination and a heartfelt defense of fantasy itself. The further we immerse ourselves in his tale, the more we appreciate the magic of playing pretend and the truths revealed when masks are donned.
Alexander, William. Goblin Secrets. New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2012. Print.