adventure! danger! sinister characters!…two zesty middle-grade novels

the nine lives of jacob tibbs cover imageThe Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs, by Cylin Busby, illustrated by Gerald Kelley
published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf

Does the cat on the cover of this book make you think purry, fuzzy thoughts? Warm as toast thoughts? Does he conjure up domestic scenes of warm firesides?

Well, banish those notions because this is a nautical cat who leads a hair-raising, stormy existence on a clipper ship in the 1830s. And those nine lives of his? Good thing he’s got every one of them!the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration gerald kelley

His name is Jacob Tibbs and he’s the runt son of one of the keenest, most faithful mousers Captain Natick has ever known. His mother, Mrs. Tibbs, is an essential crew-member of the Melissa Rae where she not only controls the vermin population, but has an uncanny knack of sensing approaching storms and warning her captain. She’s a source of good luck to a boatload of superstitious sailors.

Jacob, however, looks to be a bit of a disappointment. Puny and bumbling. Hardly able to keep his balance on the pitching ship. Smaller than the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration3 gerald kelleythe rats he’s supposed to exterminate. With four unlucky white paws, no one really wants him aboard.

Calamity strikes Jacob’s life early, leaving him to prove himself a worthy ship’s cat, and he needs every ounce of moxie his tiny body can muster. For this is a star-crossed journey if there ever was one, replete with deadly storms, grievous injuries, mutiny, and cold despair. 

 Having the cat narrate the story does soften this from other sea yarns such as Armstrong Sperry’s All Sail Set. Still, there are some gruesome play-by-plays of Jacob killing his prey that made me shudder a bit, and quite a bit of general nastiness from rogue sailors and such. I’d try it with ages 9 and up.

the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration2 gerald kelley

It’s lightly illustrated with atmospheric, black-and-white drawings by Gerald Kelley. The ending was a little abrupt for my taste, but all told, it’s a wicked-good seafaring adventure and not so many of those are being written just now. 262 pages.

Trundling further into murder and mayhem is this fabulous, Dickensian tale:

smith cover imageSmith: The Story of a Pickpocket, by Leon Garfield
first published in 1967; published by The New York Review Children’s Collection in 2013

Set in 18th-century London, this gripping mystery-adventure revolves around Smith, a cunning 12-year-old boy who makes his living by picking pockets, then disappearing like a whisper of fog before his unlucky victims have the faintest notion of his presence.

One day Smith picks the bulging pocket of a gentleman who is shortly thereafter murdered. Dread seizes Smith as he realizes that the document he purloined is apparently valuable enough to kill for. What has he got his hands on? There’s no way of knowing, for Smith cannot read.ot21

Good fortune and calamity yank Smith one way and the other as he tries to evade the chilling men in brown who would kill him in a flash to get ahold of the papers. Smith is desperate to learn what these documents are and how he can turn them to his great advantage. Who can he trust to help him, and who are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Leon Garfield was a brilliant writer with a superlative command of the English language. This classic work is not written in an easy, contemporary style, yet it reads in a gorgeous cadence. It’s an outstanding choice for reading aloud or for handing to

This photograph shows the entrance of The Oxford Arms Inn which stood in a short lane leading out of the west side of Warwick Lane, where this photograph was taken from. The inn was demolished in 1878. This is one of a collection of images commissioned by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London to record historic buildings that were being threatened with demolition.

middle-graders who aren’t afraid of a challenging vocabulary.

Garfield unleashes a host of dark, criminal forces against young Smith. The story is peppered with murderers, highwaymen, charlatans, and the assorted ruffian, so expect that.

At the same time, what is so stunning is that it’s not merely an adventure. Instead, the author crafts his flawed characters to reveal rich truths about human nature. One character in particular — an old, blind, barrister — wavers between mercy and harshness, belief and distrust, eventually owning his pitiless understanding of the law in a moving, revelatory scene.

All of this makes the book a great read for adults, and an excellent choice for book clubs for ages 11 and up.