Matthew and Arlene Daley’s The Not-So Secret Society is the next in a long line of comics made for and by educators with the explicit purpose of classroom use – a line that often varies in its quality and content, but generally has its heart in the right place.
As both an educator and an advocate for the intellectual and academic merit of the Comics medium, I’m firmly in the middleground of excited and tentative when a new educator-based comic is announced. Where content is concerned, I’ve seen more than a few well-intentioned educators more or less butcher the medium through fundamental misunderstandings of how comic books function, resulting in little more than an illustrated textbook; where tone is concerned, I’ve been disappointed more than once with a sanctimonious, pedantic tone struck toward a reading audience that we teachers know – we know – responds best to guidance when it comes from a place of mutual respect and openness.
Thankfully, The Not-So Secret Society appears to avoid both of these issues. Billed as “an all-ages adventure that celebrates the value of teamwork and lifelong friendships”, the Not-So Secret Society follows the misadventures of a group of friends whose science fair project, a candy-making machine, inadvertently unleashes more than they bargained for on their city. The preview copy I had the chance to read promises a straightforward and accessible all-ages romp without a trace of condescension. Characterization of each of the main characters is clearly defined, if a little cut and dry, and follows the “stock school clique” format you’ve seen before – which, given the target audience, isn’t surprising nor a negative. The art is easy for young eyes to follow without being so simple as to lose the interest of older readers; there’s plenty of detail in the backgrounds and enough of a Saturday cartoon vibe to evoke memories of Recess, The Weekenders, and other dearly departed early morning classics.
I am curious to see where the co-creators’ education experience will come to pass, as the bit of the issue I was given to sample played very little to overt pedagogy or any kind of explicit subject area content (or, really, anything apart from setting up the story itself), but as far as I am concerned that is a good sign. If the Daleys can take a story about a candy-machine-gone-bad and somehow spin it into a lesson worthy of classroom inclusion, then more power to them. There’s also the equally-valid notion that the endgame is the focus on “teamwork and lifelong friendships” that the overview promises, which has its place in the classroom but is less in demand as an explicit lesson, especially in the era of truncated instructional minutes and concerns about time, time, time.
Perhaps not surprising is the boost of confidence I feel for this title knowing that it is being published by an imprint of BOOM! Studios. BOOM! has become an easy favorite of mine over the past year for its fearless embracing of that which falls just shy of the traditional comic book reader’s tastes while still maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere. Titles like Adventure Time and Steven Universe come to mind, but also Lumberjanes, The Backstagers, and the masterful Power Rangers reboot all speak highly of a publisher that, while not as flashy as the big guys, certainly knows how to choose its horses in each race. I may still be on the fence when it comes to the direction that The Not-So Secret Society will lead, but its inclusion alongside such noteworthy titles is worth consideration.
Don’t misunderstand: The Not-So Secret Society is still a young reader’s book. I can see its simplified structure and easygoing narrative style as an excellent fit for a late elementary school classroom, and clever development of the story might even suggest it as a contender for middle school libraries – but beyond that, I think it’s easy to pass on this one unless you’re an educator, mentor, librarian, or otherwise have a vested interest in this work’s intended audience.
The Not-So Secret Society makes for an easy read for the young comic book reader in your life, with its easy visuals, straightforward storytelling, and the publishing power of BOOM! behind it. I’m excited – and hesitant – to see where the Daleys take their candy-coated adventure, and whether it lives up to all that it could be.