Review: Secrets We Tell the Sea by Martha Riva Palacio Obón, translated by Lourdes Heuer

Secrets We Tell the Sea by Martha Riva Palacio Obón, translated by Lourdes Heuer

Secrets We Tell the Sea
Martha Riva Palacio Obón
Translated by Lourdes Heuer
Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Published October 24, 2023

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About Secrets We Tell the Sea

The only good thing about Sofia’s mom sending her to live with her abuela is that finally Sofia and the sea will meet face-to-face.

The sea has always called to Sofia, even when she and her mom lived in a big city nowhere near its shore. That’s how Sofia always knew she was a mermaid–that, and the fact that the sea and its creatures are much easier to understand than people. Like her mother, who is sending Sofia away instead of her barracuda of a boyfriend; that’s a flying fish if Sofia’s ever seen one, spending so much time reaching for the sky she can’t see what’s going on below the surface. When Sofia meets her abuela, she knows she’s up against a sea fierce and guarded, but maybe not so bad when you’re the one she’s guarding. Still, Sofia longs to meet another mermaid, someone who understands her and the sea completely.

When Sofia meets Louisa, it seems like she’s found just that–until the sea betrays them both in one irreversible moment. Soon their town is overtaken by hurricanes and floods and emotions and questions so big Sofia doesn’t know what to do with them. Like, how do you catch a flying fish? How do you make friends with the sea again? And how do you calm the rough waters within yourself?

Secrets We Tell the Sea on Goodreads

My Review

I loved the sound of this book and the beautiful cover, but I’ll confess that I wasn’t sure what to make of the back cover copy. Is Sofia truly a mermaid? Is it something she imagines? Does the sea actually speak to her?

The story has a very literary voice and really blurs the lines between what Sofia imagines and what is actually happening around her. Sometimes, it’s clear that things are in her mind. At other times, there are explanations for things that happen. For example, one night, she sees her grandmother walking on the beach and the sea and places where her grandmother’s steps are glowing. Sofia learns this is because of bioluminescence rather than some magic of her grandmother’s.

At other times, it seems like the magical/inexplicable things are supposed to be actually happening. For instance, a shell spurts water, vibrates, and changes color to express its thoughts/feelings.

I really liked the relationships between the characters in the story. I think all the major characters are female except one. There are some really heartbreaking dynamics between the three generations of women in Sofia’s family. I felt like the story read in an accessible way to kids, but it’s one where older kids or adults will pick up on a lot of things that happen between the lines, too.

This is a pretty short book. I think it’s less than 150 pages, so I read it in one sitting, and I really loved it.

I think readers who enjoy stories with strong female voices and especially stories about the sea or ocean will love this heartbreaking story of family bonds and the transformative power of friendship.

Secrets We Tell the Sea on Bookshop

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

Characters are Brazilian and living in Brazil.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content
A man signals sexual interest in Sofia by putting a hand on her arm. She avoids him as much as possible. Sofia believes that her mother is a nighttime circus performer after finding a photo of her in a “bathing suit” with her work friends. Later learns about her mother’s real job at a bar at night.

Spiritual Content
Sofia believes that humans start out as mermaids after she learns how a fetus grows in a liquid environment inside their mother.

Violent Content
See sexual content above. A woman tells her family she fell and was injured, but later it’s revealed that her partner hit her.

Drug Content

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

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