Graphic showing acrobats performing: Book Review The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell
Blog Roll, book reviews, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Book Review: The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Book cover for The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell, depicting a huge a canoe filled with four children, in a lake before a large castle, with a backdrop of a starry sky.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

“But it’s not always sensible to be sensible.”

Katherine Rundell, The good Thieves

Historical fiction is one of my top genres, so I was eager to read this book set in depression-era New York City with my Li’l Peach. Just like mum, the budding bookworm is a lover of history. We had only ever read non-fiction books about the past, so this was an exciting read that introduced him to a beloved genre.

At the commencement of this fast-paced story, Vita and her mother had just traversed the ocean from England to assist her ailing grandfather. Her mother was hopeful that with the clearing up of his financial affairs, he would return to the UK with them in the coming weeks. The loose ends would take a little more work to clear up than anyone had imagined, least of all Vita.

The frail man defeatedly admitted that for a mere two hundred dollars, the equivalent of three thousand today, he had been scammed out of ownership of the historic family castle by a bulldozing, real-estate mogul. Although her grandfather seemed resigned to this fact and his inability to do anything about it, Vita had other plans.

If she could get into the castle and dig out some abandoned treasure, they would use the proceeds from the sale of the gem to get a fancy lawyer and set things straight. This lofty goal would seem all the more difficult to achieve given her apparent limitations: the painful and maldeveloped foot she acquired from her battle with Polio years earlier and her ignorance about the big city that she now must expertly navigate.

Possible impediments aside, our fearless heroine ventures out on her own to do a recognisance mission when she ends up crossing paths with my favourite character of the book. Silk, a homeless young teen, rough around the edges and tough-as-nails, is a hustling pick-pocket, the perfect match for the courageous Vita. As fate would have it, she also befriends Samuel and Arkady – performers in a travelling circus running temporarily at Carnegie Hall, just across the way from where her grandfather lives. Together they form a tattered yet tenacious crew of ‘good thieves,’ and the story jets off from there.

Bravery, ability, and determination are the guiding forces for this talented gang of kids as they seek to defeat the scoundrel Sorratore as he stealthily attempts to snatch up historic properties across New York City. Thanks to their diverse skillset: Samuel the acrobat, Arkady the animal whisperer, Silk the street hustler, and Vita with the expert aim – a skill she picked up when she was a small child, under the tutelage of her now infirm grandfather – a tightly-woven plan was all they would need to succeed.

The all-important red notebook held the path to victory as Vita prepared every step needed for things to come together. Unfortunately for them, they met much friction along the way. Vita is an admirable role model for young readers, as her organisational skills and strong leadership are matched only by her grit to fight through the discomfort and pain of her mission.

There were teachable moments throughout the story, as themes of family, friendship, loyalty, racism, crime, and dishonesty are in abundance. Visually evocative scenes play out as Rundell transports us through the bustle of Manhattan, the landscapes of suburban New York, and the majesty of the decaying castle.

Quote from The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell with a circus back drop and the shadow of two acrobats hanging from the top: "Racism can't be cured by black excellence when it's caused by white ignorance."

Endearing characters, an exciting plot, appropriate pacing, and sheer enjoyment have me rating this middle-grade fiction gem 4.5 peaches and adding Rundell’s other popular offering, Rooftoppers, to my list without delay.

Have you or your little ones read The Good Thieves or Rooftoppers, and if so, what did you think?

Here is the bookmark I was inspired to make whilst reading this fun novel.

Blog Roll, book reviews, Middle Grade, non-fiction

Book Review: Who Was P.T. Barnum? by Kirsten Anderson

Book Cover for Who Was P.T. Barnum? written by Kristen Anderson and part of the Who HQ Series

Who Was P.T. Barnum? by Kirsten Anderson, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi

I wonder how many people have been to a circus. I was excited about reading this one, as I’ve never been. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Circuses weren’t around much when I was a kid, and they were pricey compared to carnivals. I’d been to a few fairs in small towns, and loved the travelling amusement park that would set up all of its rickety rides and RVs for a week, once a year, in the local mall’s parking lot. You could revel in the rigged games and attractions, without having to spend an arm and a leg. When I imagine a circus, it seems like it would be a mashup of The Zoo and one of these carnival-type places, resulting in the parading around of animals (and humans), with a dressing of swindle.

Before there was Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, there was P.T. Barnum, informally called ‘Taylor.’ Who Was P.T. Barnum? affords us a look into the life of ‘The Great American Showman,’ as he was widely known – and likely named himself. Inheriting more than just his grandfather Phineas’ name, from a young age Taylor shared in his namesake’s trickster sense of humour, and fierce entrepreneurial spirit. He started his journey into business by selling refreshments in town and saved up the proceeds to purchase livestock at the age of 21. And so it went until he had a general store, sold lottery tickets, and even owned a politically focused newspaper named The Herald of Freedom.

Quote from P.T. Barnum: "If you hesitate, some bolder hand will stretch out before you and take the prize." with a yellow and red striped background to mimic a circus tent

As one of the original purveyors of fake news and media manipulation, Taylor had a penchant for advertising and knew how to drum up excitement for any idea he wanted to sell, whether it was based in reality or contrived. When a customer at his store tipped him off to a lucrative opportunity, it ignited what would be a lifelong endeavour into the exploitation of humans and animals alike, an undertaking that was all the more successful due to his talents of persuasion.

P.T. Barnum quote: "Without promotion, something terrible happens...nothing!" on a red and yellow striped background, to mimic a circus tent.

The impetus for this path was a woman named Joice Heth. Taylor was eager to ‘rent’ the enslaved, weak, and blind woman, who regaled audiences with songs and stories where she claimed to be 161-years old, and the former nanny of George Washington. He booked a theatre, advertised her amazing story all over the city, and wrote rave reviews for the show. With the exhibit’s newfound success, Taylor sent Heth on tour in New England, until her eventual death in 1836.

Newspaper advertisement for Barnum's first live exhibit, showcasing a 161-year old woman named Joice Heth
Newspaper Advertising the Joice Heth Show

Taylor had promised a curious doctor wanting to investigate her age, the rights to an autopsy of the miraculous woman. The merciless showman continued to profit from Heth’s death as he did her life, producing a public autopsy, which he thirstily charged admission to. It was proven that she was likely no more than 80 years old. Even though there was talk that Taylor had altered documents to assist with his trifling claims throughout the show’s run, he maintained that he knew nothing of her real age, and presented himself as shocked as anyone, when the news came out.

He made a handsome sum from these shenanigans, and off the back of Joice Heth, but more importantly to him, Taylor learned how a human exhibit could provide for his pocketbook. With this new model of entertainment being en vogue, from here he expanded to open The American Museum, which he eventually took on the road as the P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, before venturing under the big top in his 60s.

This HQ Series Biography explores some of Taylor’s more popular exhibits such as the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, and the highly deceptive Feejee Mermaid attraction. We learn how Taylor would move on to politics and write an autobiography that, like all of his ventures, he adeptly marketed producing mammoth sales. He even spent time doing seminars, where he promoted his self-help book entitled: The Art of Money Getting. If this is sounding a little Trumpian to you, you’re not alone.

An image of the encased Feejee Mermaid, with a sign reading: P.T. Barnum's 'Fiji Mermaid' on loan from [sic] Boston Museum

Overall, this middle-grade history book provides a lot of fascinating details about the inventive and highly ambitious Taylor, even if it chooses to leave out some of his more unappealing attributes. The beautiful sketches throughout are the perfect accompaniment to his story and shine a spotlight on the whimsy of his special brand of entertainment. Regardless of all this, I will hold back and rate this one 3.5/5 peaches, in reverence to authenticity, or the lack thereof.

Have a look at the crochet circus tent bookmark that I was inspired to make from reading Who Is P.T. Barnum?

Crochet Bookmark of a red and yellow striped circus tent with a yellow flag on top