This post includes English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It’s part of a series that shares English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for selections from Duke TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Online Book Club for gifted and talented students, which you can re-purpose for your classroom.
Why The Secret Keepers?
- A novel full of mystery and action that shows how one young man can make a difference in the world.
- Gives gifted students the opportunity to better understand how courage and conviction enable characters to overcome obstacles and be true to themselves.
- Explores the concepts of hope, friendship, and secret keeping.
- Allows students to think deeply about the social-emotional topics of loneliness, poverty, and justice.
- Examines interdisciplinary connections in the history of time and time keeping, oral storytelling, the science of invisibility, and architecture.
About the Book
What would you do if you found a mysterious antique watch with magical powers in an alley? Would you keep it for yourself or sell it to help your mother who is working multiple jobs to take care of you? Would you keep it secret or tell the world? These are questions that eleven-year-old Reuben Pedley must ask himself. However, the more questions he answers, the more mysteries he finds.
Reuben lives in the decaying city of New Umbra, a place where no one feels safe. The police have little power and the devious Counselor rules with fear and the use of his bodyguards, the Directions. Yet, with the help of unlikely allies and the mysterious watch itself, Reuben sets out on the adventure of a lifetime to help his mother and all the people of New Umbra. He will face challenges he could never imagine and make sacrifices he didn’t think were possible.
About the Author
Trenton Lee Stewart is the author of many juvenile fiction novels. He is most well known for The Mysterious Benedict Society series. Many of his books have made The New York Times Best Seller list. He wrote The Secret Keepers in 2016. He has said that the first book he truly loved was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, because it was the first time he felt like he was being transported into another place in a book. His love of puzzles and finding the answers to difficult questions is reflected in many of his novels. Stewart currently lives in Arkansas with his family.
Have you taught The Secret Keepers?
Sample Reading Journal Prompts and Discussion Questions
- The author of The Secret Keepers, Trenton Lee Stewart, often uses names that are intentionally meaningful. The name of Reuben’s city has specific meaning as the word “Umbra” means “shadow”.
- What are some examples from the text that illustrate why Stewart chose this particular name for the city?
- As you read, write down other examples of names in the text that have particular symbolic meanings.
- Reuben spends most of his time alone and has no friends. When he was younger he had friends but as he got older, “His friends had stopped wanting to play hide-and-seek with him…. Somewhere along the way Reuben realized that he was still playing hide-and-seek, was in fact playing it all the time, but by himself, without a seeker. No one was seeking him anymore” (32).
- Why do you think Reuben continues to play hide-and-seek even as the other kids his age grow out of playing the game?
- Why is it so difficult for Reuben to make friends now?
- How do you think Reuben feels about “no one seeking him anymore”? Do you think he prefers to be alone? Why or why not?
- In literature, mood refers to the feelings that an author evokes, or brings to mind, in the reader. Authors are deliberate about the phrases and descriptions they use to create these moods. For example, when Reuben sees the mysterious old man on the train, the narrator describes the interaction with the following quote: “There was something in the fixed concentration of the man’s gaze, an air about him of coiled tension, that made him seem very much like a cat that had just spotted a mouse”(149).
- What mood or emotion does the author create in this quote?
- What phrases evoke those feelings in you, the reader?
- Why do you think the author compares the interaction to that of a cat and mouse?
- After discovering the watch and seeing Officer Warren, Reuben is in a good mood. “Indeed, he [is] perhaps the only person for blocks in every direction who at that moment [is] feeling hopeful” (34). Hope is a very important emotion for people because it enables them to see solutions to problems and gives them the power to make things better in their lives. The people of New Umbra have very little hope. They mostly live in fear.
- What do you think has caused this lack of hope in New Umbra and how does it affect the way citizens live and interact with each other? Give examples from the story.
- As Reuben and his mother are designing their dream home, they use the designer’s guiding principle, “never to say no to any suggestion but rather to figure out how to make it work” (40). How does this principle show that they have hope that things can and will get better?
- Give an example of a time in your life where you have maintained hope to persevere and solve a problem.
- Reuben, Jack, and Penny hatch a plan to dispose of the watches once and for all. They choose to drop them far out into the ocean because, “The ocean [is[ the greatest secret keeper of all. Some of its secrets, like the hidden shoals, [can] be discovered, but most [will] never be known… The ocean [is] probably the most mysterious thing in the world, Reuben [thinks], except for a person” (494).
- Do you agree that the ocean is the best secret keeper? Explain your thinking with examples.
- If it was your choice, what would you have done with the watches after defeating The Smoke?
- What do you think Reuben means by a person being the only thing more mysterious than the ocean?
- Reuben and his mother have a very close relationship. His father is no longer alive, and she works tirelessly to provide both financial and emotional support to Reuben. She worries about him constantly and is very protective. “Despite her excessive caution, his mom [is] something else, and Reuben knows it. He wouldn’t… [trade] her for half a dozen moms with better jobs and more money, and in fact… told her exactly that just the week before” (6).
- Give examples from your life of how your parent(s) act in ways that protect you.
- Compare and contrast Reuben’s dynamic with his mother to another character’s relationship with a parent from a book you have read. Which relationship is more similar to your relationship with a parent?
Interdisciplinary Topics to Explore
It’s About Time (and How We Tell It)
- An introduction to the history of telling time and clock making
- An exploration of how clocks work and how clock making technology has changed over time, including an article that explains how technology has evolved to make it much easier to precisely determine who wins Olympic races
- Pictures and descriptions of a “clock watch” like the one described in the book
- An investigation of how to wind a clock with a key, like Reuben does in the story
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Science of Invisibility
- An introduction to the science of light and how it travels, including an in depth exploration of refraction
- A chance to learn about the first “invisibility cloak,” which was developed at our own Duke University!
- An investigation of how the metamaterials used in creating invisibility are making their way into other products and applications
- An experiment to better understand how light can bend with refraction
Lighthouses and Lightkeepers
- an introduction to the history of lighthouses and the lighthouse keepers who have manned these stations for generations
- A glossary of lighthouse terms and vocabulary
- Students will discover how the Fresnel Lens changed the way lighthouses emitted light to mariners trying to avoid wrecking on rocky shoals
- A video that explores a day in the life of a modern light keeper on a remote cape in Uruguay.
Pass it On: The Power of Storytelling
- An explanation of the history of oral storytelling and how it has changed over time
- An article about how storytelling can help pass down family histories through generations, much like the Meyers did with their story of Penelope and Jack.
- An opportunity for students to listen to professional storytellers narrate traditional stories from around the world (click on any link to hear a story).
- Example questions that students can use to interview family members and create their own oral histories