Study Guide

Secrets at Sea Themes

By Richard Peck

  • Family

    We've got mice siblings scampering all over this book, plus no parents to keep them in line. And this means that sibling rivalries are the name of the game in Secrets at Sea—these sisters and brother sure do like to compete with each other. But even with all this drama, there are lots of sweet times too, like when the Cranston mice clean their little house together or when they cross the huge Atlantic Ocean. By the end of the book only one big question remains: through all the good times and bad, will the Cranston mice be able to keep their family together?

    Questions About Family

    1. What characterizes sibling relationships in this book? Are the relationships among sisters different than the relationships between sisters and brothers?
    2. What are the positive aspects of families? Are there any negative elements?
    3. How are mice families similar to human families? Are there ways in which they are different?

    Chew on This

    Family takes the cake. When it comes to Helena, nothing trumps keeping her family all tied up together.

    Family needs room to grow. Helena learns that it's okay for her family to change over time.

  • Exploration

    Gear up, Cranston mice, because you're about to go on the ride of your life. And this isn't just any adventure—in Secrets at Sea they take a trip across the enormous Atlantic Ocean. Yep, these mice have tons to explore:

    • All the nooks and crannies of the ship
    • Hundreds of new mice buddies
    • Oodles of humans from all different countries
    • And merry old England—if they can survive the trip without getting eaten by the ship cat, that is

    Exploring is part of the fun of new adventures, but it definitely holds some danger for the Cranston mice, too. They're stuck on the ship until it reaches the other side though, so they've got to embrace the good and the bad as their horizons broaden.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Why do the mice choose to explore new adventures in England? What motivates them to seek out something new?
    2. Is exploration always a good thing? Are there negative consequences for the characters that go exploring?
    3. Which character is the most adventurous or the most curious? And which is the least adventurous?
    4. Who's more adventurous, the humans or the mice?

    Chew on This

    Exploration rocks. In Secrets at Sea, the mice learn that going on a new adventure is totally worth the risks.

    Exploration stinks. Sure, there are a few upsides to adventure, but in Secrets at Sea the negatives outweigh the positives.

  • Gender

    Did you know that girl mice wear dainty dresses? Or that boy mice are super messy? Come to think of it, the girl humans in Secrets at Sea are pretty dainty, too—and the boy humans can definitely make a mess. There were certain—and rather rigid—expectations for boys and girls in the 1800s, and the mice and humans in this book are no exception. For instance, Helena presumes that all boys are wild, like her little bro, and Louise tries to act pretty and girly like Camilla, her favorite human. It can be a big challenge trying to fit these molds, and our characters experience ups and downs along the way.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What qualities define being a girl in this book? What about boys? Are boys and girls defined differently for humans versus mice?
    2. According to the book, are ladies and gents super similar? Or are they pretty different? How so?
    3. What assumptions do the characters make based on gender? Are there any characters that avoid making assumptions or believing stereotypes altogether?

    Chew on This

    Secrets at Sea argues that girl mice are meant to act like dainty ladies, while boys are supposed to be messy. In this book, girls and boys are very different.

    Secrets at Sea argues that girl and boy mice come in all different types, and that's a good thing. In this book, girls and boys have a lot in common.

  • Fear

    When you're a mouse, there are tons of things to be afraid of: Water. Time. Mean humans. Cats. Snakes. The Barn. The future. Oh yes, the list goes on and on. And don't forget about the humans in Secrets at Sea because they have some fears of their own. The Upstairs Cranstons can get pretty nervous about all these foreign English customs. Whether human or mouse, sometimes fear can be pretty debilitating in this book. In fact, the Cranston mice almost stay home in America because they're so afraid. But in the end, most of our characters overcome their fears. And this means they get to be courageous, which is way more fun than being a scaredy cat.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What are the mice characters most afraid of? What about the human characters? Are they afraid of the same things?
    2. Do you think the mice ever get over their fear of water? How so? Or why not?
    3. How do the characters go from being afraid to being brave? Are there any characters that don't make this transition?

    Chew on This

    It's okay to be afraid at first. In this book, tons of characters are scared, but in the end they overcome all their fears.

    Fear is a big problem. In this book, being afraid causes major issues for our mice and human characters.

  • Marriage

    Back in the 1800s, marriage was seriously important—and it was considered especially important for women. In Secrets at Sea, this means that most of our female characters are thinking about getting hitched. Even the girl mice are looking for husbands. And when it comes to picking the right mate, each lady needs to consider how much she cares about her future hubby's rank. For Helena who cares about getting married to someone with a title, that means she's on the lookout for an upper crust mouse; but for Beatrice who only cares about love, rank doesn't matter one bit.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What does marriage look like for our characters? Are marriages generally happy in this book? Are there any examples of unhappy marriages?
    2. How is marriage different for mice and humans in this book? And how is it the same?
    3. How are marriages affected by money? What about class or rank? Are any marriages purely for the sake of love?
    4. How does marriage relate to other familial relationships? Does marriage help keep families together? Or does it pull them apart?

    Chew on This

    When it comes to marriage, rank is all that matters—most of the characters in this book value gaining a title when they get hitched.

    When it's time to tie the knot, love is the name of the game—most of the characters in this book don't care about class so long as they're in love.

  • Contrasting Regions: England and America

    Since our characters are traveling from America to England, we hear tons about these two places—from the mice and the humans, since they're all pretty opinionated. In Secrets at Sea there are a lot of differences between these two countries and their cultures. And one major difference is titles—you know, Lord, Lady, Earl… that sort of thing. The Cranstons don't have a title, since they're from America, but now they're entering a whole new class system. There's even a princess. So the Cranstons and their mice will need to figure out how to navigate all these new rankings, while still keeping some of their American roots, too.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: England and America

    1. How does this book characterize America? What about England? Are these positive portrayals or negative ones?
    2. Are England and America portrayed as similar in this book? How are they different?
    3. Does one country come across as better than another in Secrets at Sea? Or are they equals? Do the human characters prefer one country to another? What about the mice characters?

    Chew on This

    When it comes to countries, England is the place to be. Secrets at Sea argues that England is way better than America.

    England and America can be cool, but they're both pretty flawed places. Secrets at Sea argues that each of these countries has lots of problems that need to be solved.

  • Memory and the Past

    Wouldn't it be great if all Helena's memories were about bubble gum and rainbows in Secrets at Sea? Unfortunately for Helena, that's not happening—she has some tough memories in her past, and some of them are so rough that she doesn't even like talking about them. Over time though, she lets us know that her dad was killed by a cat and her mom and older sisters drowned. Those are some seriously tough times, right?

    Helena might not like to chat about her past with us, but now that she's gearing up to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Helena is about to stare those memories (and the fears they inspire in her) down. So who's going to win: Helena, or The Big Bad Past?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do the mice have a positive relationship to their past experiences? Or a negative one? What about the humans?
    2. How do Helena's memories affect the way she deals with the present? Do her memories affect her perception of the future at all? How so?
    3. How does crossing the Atlantic help certain characters to start anew? Or are the characters forever tied to their past?

    Chew on This

    It's impossible to escape the past. This book argues that Helena can never move beyond her memories.

    Moving forward is tough, but possible. This book argues that Helena eventually moves on with her life.

  • Language and Communication

    When you've got a book brimming with humans and mice, you've got to wonder how they're communicating. The good news is that the mice in Secrets at Sea are pretty ingenious—they figure out ways to learn languages and even how to write. Plus these mice are seriously chatty and good listeners, to boot. But while the mice get to learn so much about the human world, sadly our human friends don't have the same luxury. Nope—the humans in this book can't understand a word the mice say. So with these potential barriers in play, our characters have to figure out how to talk to one another and get along.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What's the best way to communicate in this book? And what's the worst way?
    2. Are there differences between the ways the Americans versus the British communicate? How so? What about boys versus girls? Or parents versus kids?
    3. What happens when there are miscommunications in Secrets at Sea?

    Chew on This

    It's always good to communicate. The characters in this book learn that they should always tell each other everything, no matter what.

    Sometimes it's best to keep quiet. There are times in this book when it's good for the characters to keep their thoughts to themselves.