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Goblin Secrets


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About The Book

In the National Book Award–winning Goblin Secrets, a boy joins a theatrical troupe of goblins to find his missing brother.

In the town of Zombay, there is a witch named Graba who has clockwork chicken legs and moves her house around—much like the fairy tale figure of Baba Yaga. Graba takes in stray children, and Rownie is the youngest boy in her household. Rownie’s only real relative is his older brother Rowan, who is an actor. But acting is outlawed in Zombay, and Rowan has disappeared.

Desperate to find him, Rownie joins up with a troupe of goblins who skirt the law to put on plays. But their plays are not only for entertainment, and the masks they use are for more than make-believe. The goblins also want to find Rowan—because Rowan might be the only person who can save the town from being flooded by a mighty river.

This accessible, atmospheric fantasy takes a gentle look at love, loss, and family while delivering a fast-paced adventure that is sure to satisfy.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide to

Goblin Secrets
By William Alexander

With a sure hand, William Alexander here creates a wholly convincing world of mechanized soldiers, chicken-legged grandmothers, sentient rivers, and goblin actors. In that uncertain landscape, young Rownie learns the mysterious craft of masking to search for both his brother and his own story, unaware that the solution to these searches may be the salvation of his city. Alexander's world is one of possessiveness—and true love—brilliantly revealing our own selves by holding up our masks.
—Citation by the Judges of the 2012 National Book Award

About the Book

Rownie, the youngest in Graba the witchworker's household of stray children, escapes and goes looking for his missing brother. Along the way he falls in with a troupe of theatrical goblins and learns the secret origins of masks. Now Graba's birds are hunting him in the Southside of Zombay, the Lord Mayor's guards are searching for him in Northside, and the River between them is getting angry. The city needs saving—and only the goblins know how.

Discussion Questions

Please use examples from the text to support your answers.

1. Describe Rownie’s personality and physical traits in Act I of the novel. How do the other grubs in Graba’s house treat Rownie? What does his relationship with the grubs show you about his personality?

2. How is Graba like a grandmother to the children in her house? How is she different? How does she treat Rownie?

3. Analyze the impact of the repetition of words and phrases throughout the novel. Find words that are repeated and consider why the author repeats these particular words. How does the author’s word choices support the tone of the story? What does his choice of words reveal about Zombay?

4. Why do you think the author chose to name the town “Zombay”? What does the name indicate about the setting? What effect does the setting have on the plot in the story?

5. What genre do you think the story belongs to? Why?

6. Why do you think the author chose to write in this genre?

7. The author chose to structure the text in a play format. How does this impact the overall story?

8. In the beginning of the story, Rownie tries to hide from Graba’s grubs that are chasing him. How does the author’s choice of words, and the situations Rownie finds himself in, add suspense to the novel? What impact does this have on the rising action?

9. Sometimes the author wants the reader to read between the lines and make inferences. The author indicates that Vass, Blotches, and Stubble sometimes sound like Graba. What is the author implying? How do you know?

10. The author uses sensory imagery throughout the novel to bring the reader deeper into the story. Give specific examples of sensory imagery in Act II, Scene III, including smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound.

11. What does it mean to be a changeling? Do you think it is a good thing? Why or why not?

12. What is the theme of Goblin Secrets? How does the author develop this theme throughout the course of the text?

13. Flashbacks are interruptions in the story when a character returns to an earlier time. Give examples of how flashbacks are incorporated into Goblin Secrets. Why does the author use this literary technique?

14. Rownie’s personality starts to change in Act II and Act III. How does he grow up and develop over the course of the novel? How does his personal growth advance the plot towards a resolution?

15. Personification, the literary technique of bringing inanimate objects to life, is woven throughout the novel. For example, the fox mask comes alive and portrays a sly and quick-witted individual. Evaluate more examples of how the author uses personification, and why it is important to the story.

16. Consider the author’s use of onomatopoeia—using words to mimic the sounds associated with an object or action that it refers to. Alexander uses onomatopoeia when he writes, “Rownie’s teeth clacked together. Thomas and Essa gave squawks of protest from inside.” How does onomatopoeia enhance the story? Find other examples of it throughout the story and evaluate how it improves the scenes described.

17. Objectively summarize the story. Create a time line to chart the plot and important details crucial to the story line. Present the summary in chronological order.

18. What is Thomas and Semele’s relationship with Rownie like? How does meeting the troupe shape Rownie’s personality throughout the novel?

19. When Rownie finally finds Rowan, Rowan has been changed. What happened to him? How does this contribute to the story’s plot development?

20. Why do you think Rowan’s “change” transforms Rownie?

21. What impact does the Mayor have on the story? What is his purpose?

22. How would the story be different if it was told from Rowan’s point of view? What about Thomas’s point of view?

23. How is the mood at the beginning of the story different from the mood at the end of the story? Does the novel end with a positive or negative resolution?

24. Make a prediction about what would happen next in the story. Do you think Rownie will stay with the troupe? Why or why not?

This guide was written by Michelle Carson, Reading Teacher, Reading Endorsed, Palm Beach Central High School.

This guide, written to align with the Common Core State Standards ( has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

Photograph by Matthew Aronoff

William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and won the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His other novels include A Festival of GhostsA Properly Unhaunted PlaceGhoulish SongNomad, and Ambassador. William studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion workshop. He teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Like the protagonist of Nomad and Ambassador, William is the son of a Latino immigrant to the US. Visit him online at and, and on Twitter via @WillieAlex.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (July 23, 2013)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781442427273
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 710L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

* "Rownie’s search for his brother turns into an unlikely heroic quest. . . . Though highly textured, it’s tightly woven and reassuringly seamless. The result is wryly humorous and bearably yet excitingly menacing: Even while much is left unexplained, Rownie’s triumph is both gripping and tantalizing."--Kirkus Reviews, *STAR

"Alexander has an intriguing central theme, in which masks and theater create actual magic . . . The result is a (sometimes gruesome) fantasy stuffed with interesting ideas."--Publishers Weekly

"The appeal here lies in Alexander’s careful construction of a distinctive world: touches of steampunk can be found in Graba’s geared-up legs and the Mayor’s automaton guards while a more ancient, primal magic seems to guide the goblins and their powerful brand of storytelling. . . . The bittersweet ending remains true to the story’s overall dreamy, melancholic tone."--The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"The story weaves a many-webbed tale, rich in imagination with a fairy-tale feel."--School Library Journal

"The mythic resonance in Alexander's storytelling, coupled with his smart, graceful writing, make this novel feel both pleasantly old and thoroughly new." - Locus Magazine

"William Alexander organizes his atmospheric first novel into acts and scenes, rather than chapters, and he couches it in the beautifully elliptical language of the old fairy tales."

– Washington Post

Awards and Honors

  • National Book Award Winner
  • Minnesota Book Awards Finalist
  • CBC Best Children's Books of the Year

Resources and Downloads

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