A Look at Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea
With Lots of Help from Illustrator Kelly Murphy

h1 September 14th, 2011 by jules


“A ship too big for the marble to contain…”

Here’s a little story:

I read a galley of Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea (Dial Books) this summer, and then I got busy with my own manuscript deadline. As in, super duper big-time suh-wamped.

But I really loved this very funny book, Peck’s animal fantasy / comedy of manners — an illustrated novel with art from Kelly Murphy. I read it out loud to my young daughters, and we all enjoyed it (though, I have to say, I think they’d get even more of the sophisticated humor in it when they’re a bit older). So, when I sat down today to post about it—I’ve got some of the book’s interior art to showcase today, as well as a few words from Kelly about what it was like to illustrate this and some of her early sketches—I really figured this post would come well after the book’s release. But, no, I see here that it’s scheduled to be released in mid-October.

I have mentioned many times before here at 7-Imp that I’m incredibly disorganized, right? When it comes to blogging, that is. I think a 7-Imp Administrative Assistant would do me well. I’d give this person all the coffee he or she wants, too. I mean, Alfred is handy, and he does tell those wicked funny knock-knock jokes, but between me, you, and the cyberspace gatepost, he dozes a lot on the job.

Anyway. The other challenge is to describe this book when I read it so many months ago, but I’ll do my best here:

You see, it’s the late 19th century in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and there’s this family of mice — Helena (the big sister) and her three younger siblings, Louise, Beatrice, and unruly Lamont. These mice live inside the walls of the Cranston home. The Cranstons, a bit desperate to marry off their socially awkward daughter, Olive, plan to sail to Europe to find her a husband. This is what Louise hears through the walls in chapter one of the book, and needless to say, she and her family are a bit shaken by the news: “Water is not a happy subject with us,” Beatrice, our trusty narrator, tells us. (The children’s mother and sister met their untimely deaths in a rain barrel.) But, facing their fears, they stow away on the ship, sailing over the Atlantic Ocean to London, after Helena visits Aunt Fannie Fenimore, “the wisest mouse in both Westchester and Dutchess counties. Though she was no picnic to be around.” Aunt Fannie has a crystal ball (pictured above). And Aunt Fannie tells her: “Here is how you hold your family together,” putting out both her old hands and stretching them open wide.

I don’t want to be spoiler-riffic here (I guess I should add for the very sensitive that some of the featured illustrations below can be spoiler-esque in nature), so I’ll just say they have many adventures on the ship, deciding to help their human counterparts in finding love. There’s a cat on the ship; Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee; a mouse with a tail that is “pure poetry”; lots of string quartets and hopping onto swishy skirts in order to get around with their humans and plan their interventions; some very funny attempts on the part of Lamont to speak in a Cockney dialect; a Duchess of Cheddar Gorge; and the spiffy Lord Peter Henslow, mouse equerry to Lord Peter (the human version). There may or may not be royal weddings involved. (Rodent or human? OR BOTH? I won’t tell.)

This is a briskly-paced tale and is laugh out loud funny in many spots. “Peck must have had a blast writing this,” says the Kirkus review. “Whimsical language, sure characterization, unflagging adventure, even romance—all seen through Helena’s relentlessly practical beady little eyes … Sheer delight.” That pretty much nails it. It is an entertaining read, complete with Peck’s subtle, wink-wink humor.

Don’t let any possible ennui with all the many mouse books out there right now turn you away from this one. As the publisher likes to tell you (and they’re right), this is Peck at his most playful.

Kelly Murphy is stopping by today to share some of the art in the book—which is full of humor and spunk and is a wonderful complement to the text (never overpowering, yet stands on its own)—and I thank her. Here’s what she had to say about working on it:

When this adorable story came across my desk, I was very excited to create the whole world that the mice family lived in. I knew this project would involve a healthy amount of research, but enough creative freedom to imagine the details of the mouse world. Richard Peck’s words are so lush with setting and emotion; it was impossible not to be inspired. Taking a more realistic approach than my picture book work, I loved being able to keep some of the more animalistic qualities of the mice. I am just thankful that my mother had a strange amount of reference books which featured turn of the century ocean liners. Serendipitous!

Enjoy the art …

* * * * * * *


“We wear clothes only in our quarters, here within the walls.”


“At the last second, I swerved away, defying death.”


“She folded back her scrap quilt, and up she rose.”


“We watched her through the crack in the drawer.”


“A mouse of a certain age strode up.”


“‘Oh, Mousie!’ she exclaimed.”


“I chanced another look.”


“Quick-thinking, sharp-toothed Louise.”


“Her little pointed, bewhiskered face popped up.”


“‘Bad kitty,’ said His Lordship.”


“They danced in all the space there was.”


“Then—somehow—Beatrice and Lord Peter were on the ballroom floor.”


“She seemed to skim just above the carpet, like a floating doily.”



Kelly’s character sketches


Chapter heads: “They are portholes that are supposed to reflect
the mood/location in each chapter,” adds Kelly.


Various cover sketches


Final cover art

* * * * * * *

SECRETS AT SEA. Copyright © 2011 by Richard Peck. Illustration © 2011 by Kelly Murphy. Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, New York.

All images used with permission of Kelly Murphy.

Quoted excerpts taken from an advance reading copy and are subject to change.

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5 comments to “A Look at Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea
With Lots of Help from Illustrator Kelly Murphy”

  1. Y’know, I love when authors don’t let what they’ve done before, or what people know them for convince them that those things are all that they can do. I would NOT have expected a mouse-themed chapter book/graphic-y novel/picture book-y thing from Richard Peck… but so what? More power to him, and it looks ADORABLE; boy, the right illustrator makes such a difference, doesn’t it? They can make or break even the cutest storyline.


  2. Love that cover! Not surprisingly, since Kelly Murphy is one of the best illustrators around. Can’t wait to read this.


  3. I read the ARC and didn’t get to see all the art, so some of these are new to me. The book was such a lot of fun to read, and what I saw of Kelly’s art was a real enhancement, particularly given the context it gives for period and setting.


  4. Ditto for me, Adrienne. The first time I saw a lot of these illustrations was when Kelly emailed them to me, since I read an ARC, too (though the ARC *did* have some of the artwork).

    Good, good stuff.


  5. I love all of these, but I particularly adore those portholes! What a thoughtful way to start the chapters (I wouldn’t mind a print to hang in my bathroom, either…)


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