HOW TO BUILD A HEART
by Maria Padian
Algonquin Young Readers, 339 pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
Isabella Crawford doesn’t keep secrets, she guards them. Protects them:
People love to talk about themselves, and if you keep directing the conversation and questions back to them, they leave the interaction with the impression you’re the absolute best. Even though you haven’t told them a damn thing.
I’m crazy good at this game. And I’ve had years of practice.
For Izzy, a failure to safeguard a secret means the life she meticulously crafted for herself is in jeopardy. She’d prefer not to keep most of her life hidden away; but she also knows that the less you share about yourself, the less you get hurt.
In her new novel How to Build a Heart, Maria Padian brings us into Izzy’s world with one of her biggest secrets: she’s poor and lives with her mother, little brother, and dog in Meadowbrook Gardens, a trailer park on the outskirts of town. Aside from her best friend and closest confidante, Roz, nobody knows where she lives – or how she’s lived. And she intends to keep it that way.
However, that’s only one of the things that Izzy chooses to keep to herself. She keeps her interactions with Roz hidden from her mother (who deems Roz “a bad influence”) and she never tells anyone that she and Roz have a penchant for spying on popular guys named Sam Shackleton (in his own backyard). Izzy’s teachers and classmates don’t know she’s one of the only kids in her school who still uses a prepaid cellphone and has to buy her own minutes.
In one seemingly-perfect moment the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself to her family: they can get a new house—an actual house—through Habitat for Humanity. All that’s required is putting in a few hundred hours of sweat equity and telling their story to the surrounding community to help raise funds for the build. This means that everyone in Clayton County—from her school friends to her classmates—will know her most closely-guarded secret.
It’s here Padian takes the reader on a deep dive into the many themes of this book, all bound by a single overarching question: what is the price we pay for keeping secrets?
Padian explores this question through a balance of vivid description and witty, discerning storytelling – giving a refreshing zeal to Izzy’s first-person narrative. It’s this balanced writing style that helps envelop the reader in Izzy’s world. Her emotions run raw across each page, written with a passion fueled by Padian’s shared personal experiences.
Through Izzy we begin to consider the weight secrets hold. Izzy’s mastered art of keeping secrets is built upon the ability to lie, or at the very least withholding the truth. Lie after lie, she keeps parts of herself private from others at the expense of her own happiness, unable to live her life to the fullest. Izzy’s secrets also hold a greater burden; her desire to keep her lifestyle hidden puts her family’s new Habitat home in jeopardy. Without her cooperation, their story may not be impactful enough to get the support they need to build. The only other option is to get the help of their estranged Crawford family, but her mother’s own secrets prevents that from happening. Then there’s Sam Shackleton who – through a series of well-timed coincidences – has taken a fancy to Izzy, which will end her friendship with Roz if she finds out.
The secrets that surround Izzy – those she keeps and those kept from her – become the cracks that weaken the foundations of her life: family, friends, opportunities, love, and fulfillment. She thinks secrets are necessary for survival, but what Izzy and the reader come to realize is that secrets and lies only help you survive, honesty and truth help you live:
…Secrets don’t stay secret for very long. It all comes out, in the end.
Padian’s How to Build a Heart encourages us to embrace our authentic selves by letting go, not only of secrets, but of the desire to hide parts of ourselves in hopes that others will accept us. The key to building a heart, as Padian passionately writes, is a solid foundation of self-acceptance. Once Izzy begins accepting who she is, the need for keeping secrets diminishes. There are, of course, secrets we are all entitled to; however, this book teaches readers that some secrets are a heavy burden. Through honesty, the truth unburdens us of our fears, releases us from what holds us back, and frees us to live our lives to the fullest:
I cannot remember the last time I felt so light. Maybe it’s because my arms are finally empty of stones.
Kristie Gadson is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s in English. But, formalities aside, she knew that children’s books would become her passion when she found herself sneaking into the children’s section of Barnes & Noble well after she turned eighteen. She is a strong advocate for diverse children’s books, and writes diverse children’s book reviews on her blog The Black Sheep Book Review.