Paul Dobben’s Christian-oriented children’s chapter book RJ’s Secret takes an ancient story and refreshes it for younger readers by creating a whodunit of sorts.
RJ is a stonemason in an ancient city. He’s hired to hide a treasure and keep a secret, then later to build some complex structures. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that he’s building the site where Jesus will be crucified, along with the cave where Jesus will be entombed, complete with the stone that is rolled away. The crucifixion and resurrection occur, but we see them through RJ’s eyes, and at the end of the book he is revealed to be “R. Joseph of Arimathaea,” a master road builder.
Dobben gets many things right here; he limits his focus to a story that can be told in few words and slants it so that something old—ancient, even—feels new again. However, a book intended for young readers needs to be flawless in terms of grammar and sentence structure, and the writing here occasionally spins out of control. At one point RJ thinks to himself, “These soldiers are trying to make their death machine more efficient no more holes to dig before they hung someone and less work for themselves cheapening life, plus gave this method of killing more permanence.” For the moral to come through, the language must be clear and simple, and this is a muddle.
That said, some revision is all RJ’s Secret needs to be an exciting chapter book with a powerful Christian outlook. Dobben has been writing stories for his grandchildren, and he knows the audience well and can reach them effectively. With more editorial polish, this could be a treasure.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.