The Fantastic Secret

of Owen Jester

By Barbara O’Connor

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Boys and Girls, ages 7 to 10. The story features a male protagonist and the sort of rambunctious summer fun that will likely be particularly relatable for boys, but a strong female character and a lack of gross-out jokes will keep girls from being alienated…unless, you know, they like that kind of thing.

One Word Summary: Buoyant.

In this day and age of niche driven story telling and books ready made for filmic adaptation and merchandizing, there’s something rather bold about being simple. A small story, the kind that harkens back to the likes of Charlotte’s Web, a time when all kids had to worry about was not tracking mud on the newly cleaned floors, The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester neatly makes up for its lack of flash with an abundance of authenticity.

Set in Georgia, in that hazy book-time of not quite now, but not that long ago, Owen Jester’s eponymous main character is living with his parents in his ailing grandfather’s house. There are plenty of things that aren’t so great about this arrangement, like the housekeeper Earlene who’s always on Owen’s case, or the busy-body next door neighbor Viola, or the fact that he’s living in a house where there’s a man gradually

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dying in one of the upstairs bedrooms. But the house also has a pretty great upside as well; A big pond in the woods out back, full of frogs. Owen spent weeks stalking the most perfect frog of them all and finally got his hands on him, naming him Tooley Graham and keeping him in a bucket in his closet. But that’s not all Owen finds in the woods. After hearing a thunderous crash from his bedroom window one night as the train rattled by, Owen seeks out the source of the commotion and finds a two-seater, ambient pressure submarine, fallen from one of the freight cars.

With his friends Travis and Stumpy (a fantastically unexplained nickname…yes he has all his appendages.) Owen sets out to create the greatest cage ever for Tooley on the bank of the pond, and to get the submarine down to the water and take the thing for a spin. Supposedly the pond is rather deep. But obstacles abound in both of these missions, and nosy Viola just makes everything worse with her threats to tattle, insistence on being involved, and tendency to oh-so-annoyingly know everything. Top among Viola’s complaints that irk the daylights out of

Owen: that Tooley looks sad in his bucket, that frogs aren’t meant to have names, or live in cages. Frogs must be free. The thought of Tooley’s unhappiness at his own hands nags at Owen as he fashions the perfect froggy home, leading to the inevitable question: Would Tooley be better off if Owen just let him go?  

Perfectly capturing that delicate moment teetering between the imaginative, unbound fog of childhood and the clear-seeing, if more stark world of adulthood, Owen Jester taps into that classic saying ‘If you love something, set it free’ without beating you over the head with it. Most of us can remember that time when it got a little harder to play make-believe, when splashing in the mud started to seem a little unpleasant, when the magic of the world started to grow a little bit dim. This book is as much an ode to those last fleeting moments as it is an exploration of the secret lives of children. But to weigh the book down with analysis would be to take away the thing that makes it so lovely: its easy, free-spirited, sense of good old-fashioned fun, the kind of adventure that can be found in your own backyard. A particularly great read-aloud book for parents and kids to enjoy together.
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© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012