Have you ever been haunted by a novel? If not, THE SECRET ROOM will do it for you. Let me explain why.
Originally published in German ("Das Adoptivzimmer") in 2004, Antonia Michaelis' novel tells the story of an 11-year-old orphan named Achim who is adopted by a couple called Paul and Ines Ribbek. Years ago, the Ribbek's only son, Arnim, was killed while crossing the street and it is this boy whom Achim finds imprisoned in a secret room in the Ribbek's house, unable to become a bird and leave because of The Nameless One.
All Arnim knows about The Nameless One is that he lives in a palace whose bricks are built by both Arnim's longing to fly free and his parents' sadness. Achim agrees to help Arnim and becomes a bird, flying to The Nameless One's palace. On several occasions, he encounters The Nameless One--who appears as a huge black bird or a furious lion--and barely escapes with his life. But through pluck, Achim discovers the secret keeping Arnim in his prison and cuts through it. Even though The Nameless One can't be completely defeated--"People would keep dying and other people wouldn't be able to let them go. The Nameless One's palace would keep growing till the end of time, and people's tears would keep nourishing him because there can't be a world without tears"--this time, Arnim, now a "small bird with red and gold feathers, and green, green feet," can finally fly free.
The story, with all the hallmarks of being a fairy tale, is told in strong, spare prose (at least in the translation by Mollie Hosmer-Dillard. If we have German readers familiar with Michaelis' work, I'd love for them to chime in!) There are moments of great pathos and grand adventure (at times it made me think of Narnia), but also of sly and whimsical humor. (The Ribbeks, much to Achim's astonishment, are often playful and not averse to food fights.) The novel is a beautiful meditation on grief, without sacrificing the characters and strong adventure narrative that middle readers crave.
I was happy to be introduced to Sky Pony Press through reading a copy of this novel. I asked Senior Editor Julie Matysik about how she had acquired the title and this is what she said:
Like you, I am not a German speaker either, but when starting Sky Pony, I began reaching out to some foreign children's publishers to try to bring in some books in translation for our list (which is something our parent company, Skyhorse Publishing, does on the adult side). I received a catalog from Loewe, the German publisher of the hardcover edition of the book, and asked for a sample translation. The rights person at Loewe told me that Antonia is a rising star in German children's literature and is quite prolific as well. She sent along a hard copy of the book as well as a sample translation of the first chapter, and after reading, I knew it would be phenomenal. So we did a 2-book deal with Antonia's agent and published THE SECRET ROOM in October of last year. This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Germany to meet with various children's publisher and almost every one of them had one of Antonia's books on their list and they all had nothing but good things to say about her writing and storytelling.As I am originally a European import to the States, I find it heartening to see how international the publishing world is, and how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy writers from all over the globe. I heartily recommend THE SECRET ROOM, especially to those who love Narnia-like fantasy, and I am looking forward to a companion title which is being published by Sky Pony later this year: THE SECRET OF THE TWELFTH CONTINENT, the story of Achim's friend from the orphanage, Karl.
ANTONIA MICHAELIS was born in North Germany in 1979 and spent her childhood and adolescence surrounded by her crazy-likeable parents and various cats. She started writing stories at a very young age. After finishing school, Michaelis left Germany and moved to South India for a year. She worked in a school near Madras as a teacher for English, arts, and acting. She has just finished studying medicine and is now writing children’s books. She lives in the Northeast of Germany.