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A Fire Sparks Rivalry And Suspicion In 'The Art Of Secrets'


Saba Khan is a high school sophomore whose life is turned upside down in a flash - a mysterious fire that destroys her family's apartment on the North Side of Chicago. The Khans are Americans of Pakistani descent. Were they victims of a hate crime? Saba's high school rallies behind her family.

They organize an auction to help the Khans, but when a donated painting turns out to be a lot more than just garage art, rivalry and suspicion flair. "The Art of Secrets" is James Klise's new novel for young adults. His previous book, "Love Drugged," won several YA awards. He is also a high school librarian in Chicago. And he joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Media. Thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES KLISE: Well, thank you. It's great to be here.

SIMON: Saba writes - I quote her words in your book - "the fire might have been the best thing that ever happened to me." How so?

KLISE: Well, the fire creates a lot of opportunities for Saba. Not only does she become much more visible on her school campus, she starts dating a very attractive, popular, senior boy. And her Facebook page sort of explodes. And she has the potential to become wealthy because of the discovery of the artwork. So it creates opportunities for her. And when she says that, it's the very beginning of the book. The reader doesn't know what she means yet, but we find out.

SIMON: By the way, you don't use a traditional, novelistic technique, but journal entries, articles, documents, text messages. What does that do?

KLISE: It's interesting. In this case, the format came first. I knew I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a chorus. I was interested in playing around with voice and point of view. And I thought it would be fun to put the reader in the position of knowing much more than any of the individual characters could know.

Because I knew I was telling a mystery, I thought would be interesting to sort of place the burden on the reader to be aware of the big picture in a way that none of the individual characters could be.

SIMON: And you also - gosh forbid - in a young adult novel, you also occasionally include the viewpoints of adults.

KLISE: You're right. Within young adult, it is taboo to include grown-up points of view. But, you know, the young people...

SIMON: That the implication being a parent might - or an adult might occasionally know something.

KLISE: It didn't seem such a stretch to me to think that teenagers would be interested in hearing about grown-ups, especially when they're talking about the kids and what's going on at school. So I thought it was part of the fun.

SIMON: Speaking of stretch - awkward transition here - Steve Davinski...


SIMON: ...Six-foot-nine...

KLISE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Most popular basketball player, most popular kid in the school. Those first text messages between Steve and Saba are awkward and sweet. What do they...

KLISE: Right.

SIMON: What do they see in each other?

KLISE: Well, for sure, Saba sees in Steve what everybody else sees - a good-looking, popular, class president, star athlete. He represents a kind of teenage life that hasn't - she hasn't had access to until this relationship. And for Steve, he sees in Saba, again, a student who suddenly is at the center of the school social map. And he wonders if there might be something there for him. He's curious about her. And he wants to help her, like everybody else in the school. So their relationship is awkward at first.

SIMON: A mysterious piece of artwork comes into the plot. However, it is said to be the product of a real artist. Henry Darger enters your story. Set him up for us, if you could.

KLISE: So I'm glad you ask about Henry Darger. He was a real character from Chicago art history. He was a very poor, very isolated, extremely obsessed, self-taught artist. Among other things, he wrote a 15,000-page, typed manuscript. And he's most famous for the illustrations that he made for the book.

SIMON: We should explain he was kind of one of the original people who were identified as outsider artists - not coming from any particular tradition, but self-educated reflecting their own vision.

KLISE: That is correct. And I knew when I was working on the book, that I was going to be playing around with themes of being an insider and being an outsider in different situations in which that's the case. And it struck me that maybe - while I knew that I needed something valuable to show up, and I needed it to be work that could plausibly be found in a Chicago alley.

I mean, it would be extraordinary for anyone to find a piece of artwork by Henry Darger in an alley, but it's plausible. And when you're telling a story, you know, plausibility is king.

SIMON: Do the youngsters at the library of the school where you're a librarian on the north side know of your secret life as an author? (Laughter) I guess it's not so secret now, is it?

KLISE: It's not a secret, but I think most of the students at my school still see me as the person who helps them find sources for research and can dependably clear a paper jam in the copier.

SIMON: Let me ask you a librarian question. Will pressure grow for high schools to get rid of libraries when the time's coming that, you know, students can walk around with a tablet that can store more books than most libraries can hold?

KLISE: You know, that seems to be the conventional wisdom. That's not been my experience at my school. My students are still devoted to books on paper. I don't see any of them with tablets. But I think that students still enjoy seeing a book, seeing the cover, flipping to the back and seeing what it's about and taking it out. I'm lucky to have a well-funded library. We don't have the money for a football team, but we do have money for a library. And that makes me kind of happy.

SIMON: James Klise. His new novel "The Art of Secrets." Thanks so much for being with us. Good luck.

KLISE: Oh, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.