I’ve been on a mission lately to find great new reads packed with action, adventure, mystery, humor, grit. Books you might hand to those who might not relish quieter, understated, or more relationship-centric stories. And I found some winners! I loved every one of these:
The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, by Avi published in 2017 by Algonquin Young Readers 313 pages
High adventure, derring-do, rogues a-plenty, villains, thieves, pickpockets, wretched poorhouses, Dickensian schoolmasters, and the constant threat of a hanging hovering about our dear Oliver’s head — that’s the flavor of this action-packed yarn from one of the great storytellers, Avi.
Taking place in and near London, 1724, the story is steeped in period atmosphere, told with an olde-fashioned-y English flavor, seasoned with gusto and wit. Run, hide, dodge, and escape with our 12-year-old hero as he finds himself caught up in a criminal world and searches through smoggy, mucky London for help. You won’t catch your breath until the very last page, and even then, we’re teased with one final line: To be continued in Book Two! 10 and up.
Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke published in 2017 by First Second 207 pages
Don’t miss the final episode of Ben Hatke’s thrilling, fantasy, graphic novel trilogy! If you’ve missed the first two books in the series, do not pass go, do not collect $200 before grabbing them from your library and setting out with Jack and Lilly. You can read my review of those here.
When we left off, Jack’s little sister Maddy, a non-verbal child on the spectrum, had been captured by an ogre emerging through an other-worldly portal. The portal itself emerged courtesy of some crazily-bewitched seeds Jack and Maddy planted in their back yard. Ever-bold, audacious Lilly and fiercely-loyal, intrepid Jack charge after her.
What they encounter there, the hazards to be overcome, the enormously-surprising species, and one sweet vintage Shelby Mustang — will have you turning the pages madly, grinning, cringing, and cheering.
Also — Hatke leaves us with quite the teaser ending! A series to relish for ages 7 and up.
The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, by Jordan Sonnenblick published in 2017 by Scholastic Press 193 pages
Jordan Sonnenblick creates realistic fiction with biting wit, dry sarcasm, and a host of flawed characters who unapologetically steal our hearts. This latest title of his is no exception, an unflinching look at understanding the backstories of the glitchy people we meet and what it actually means to be a hero.
Maverick is the shrimpiest kid in sixth grade. He’s also missing a dad, and the mom he’s got is mostly out-of-commission due to severe alcoholism and a penchant to drift from one abusive relationship to the next. He attracts bullies like raw meat beckons flies, and when he tries to heroically stand up for others his efforts tend to backfire and land him in detention. Yet Maverick is determined to make his school a better place for others.
How does a kid like this make it? Part of the answer lies in a couple of exceptional adults in his life who stick with him, choose to see potential in this loyal, well-meaning, hurting boy. The other part of the answer is his deep reservoir of desire, a desire to be one of the good guys.
The dysfunctional home lives of kids in your school and neighborhood are laid out here in all their non-glory, as is the difference a person can make and the real meaning of heroism. With humor and grit, it will transform perspectives of its readers, ages 11 and up.
Clementine Loves Red, written by Krystyna Boglar, illustrated by Bohdan Butenko, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones originally published in Poland in 1970; English translation published in 2017 by Pushkin Children’s Books 192 pages
This new English translation of a classic Polish children’s book has all the verve you might expect from its racy-tomato-red cover and those slightly off-kilter drawings.
With characters ranging from a small boy called Pudding, to a grouchy artist named Phosphorus Twisk, one forlorn girl by the name of Macadamia, several frantic policeman, a German Shepard called Pickles, and a sneezing car, the story takes on a lovely quirkiness. Throw in a madcap search for the lost Clementine… in the nighttime forest…during a cracking storm…with all the bumbling and near-misses of the Keystone Cops — and you’ll arrive at its zesty, witty flavor.
Butenko’s wobbly, eccentric line drawings, all done in that same splash of red, add greatly to the book’s excellent design. It’s quite a ride from start to finish for readers ages 8 and up. Could also be read-aloud to those a bit younger. (Contains a few expletives in the heat of the chase and several references to “playing Red Indians.”)
Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz, written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark published in 2017 by Harper Collins
Michael Morpurgo, one of children’s literature’s godfathers you might say, has retold the classic Wizard of Oz story from Toto’s point of view. It reads with ease, doggy-friendliness, and a pleasant degree of informality. Boosting the story’s panache are Emma Chichester Clark’s flamboyantly colorful, cheery illustrations, strewn generously throughout.
Morpurgo has followed the original story to a large degree, though he digresses from both the original and the classic Judy Garland film at some points. He’s added in Toto’s predilection for sausages which works very well as a running theme and condensed the action for an evenly clipped tale.
Children ages 6 and up will enjoy this and it would make a fine read-aloud as well. If they like it enough, it could act as a gateway to L. Frank Baum’s original story with the challenge of spotting the differences (I predict some great surprises!), as well as Baum’s many other Oz stories. Several of my daughters loved that whole series when they were young. It’s a treasure trove for young, voracious readers.