Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier
Picture if you will a newborn baby boy placed in a basket and left to sail the ocean alone. When he is finally rescued by sailors his eyes have been pecked out by a raven. The sailors kill the raven and turn the baby over to the local authorities. The baby is given a name- Peter Nimble-and nothing else, and sent into the world to fend for himself. He lives for a time with a mama cat and her kittens, until they are discovered and thrown into the ocean in a burlap bag to drown. Peter manages to untie the bag and make it to safety. Having nobody to care for him, Peter learns to survive on his own. Although he is an infant- and a blind infant at that- he starts his career as a thief. By the age of 3, Peter had become a true menace to society. His talents were discovered by Mr. Seamus- a beggarmonger (a man who trains orphans to beg and steal and turn their booty over to him in exchange for "food" and "shelter"). Mr. Seamus always wanted to become a thief- but he was too clumsy to follow his dream. When he met Peter, he decided to sell off his other beggars and train Peter to become an expert thief. In fact, Peter became an expert at picking locks because Mr. Seamus locked all of Peter's meals inside an old sea chest- if he wanted to eat, he had to pick the lock.
When a mysterious haberdasher (a man who sells men's hats and ties and such) comes to town, Peter's skills as a thief are put to the test. The boy steals a box of magical eyes from the haberdasher. The first time he touches the eyes, he knows that he must try them. He puts in the eyes and is instantly transported to a mysterious land. As it turns out, Peter had been summoned to help save The Vanished Kingdom. Using the fantastic eyes, he must set out on a fantastical quest where he befriends a part man, part kitten part horse creature, meets a dogfish bigger than a whale and gets stranded in the desert. I can't give away much more, because it will ruin the story for you- and you know I won't do that! But, I will tell you that you will read about swashbuckling, sword fighting, evil Kings, talking ravens and killer apes!
I can tell you that this is a quest that reminded me of so many great quests I have read- including The Wizard of Oz. Peter is a little bit like Dorothy who gets whisked away to a magical land where he must go on a journey to find the answers to his questions and to discover who he truly is and where he truly belongs. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets many memorable characters that help her along the way. Peter meets characters that help him on his quest as well (instead of The Cowardly Lion, we have Sir Tode)- and some that try to stop him from completing his quest (Instead of The Wicked Witch of the West, we have King Incarnadine). And like Dorothy, what Peter was looking for might have been with him all along. (Instead of ruby slippers we have... um, can't tell you!)
This a fast paced adventure that will appeal to kids grades 4-8 (boys will devour this books, but girls will love it as well). I love a good adventure story, but what made me fall in love with this book was the storytelling that took place in it. Yes, all authors have a story to tell, but not all authors weave a story in the magical way that Mr. Auxier did here. As I read, I was transported to my favorite books- The Princess Bride, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, The Tale of Desperaux... The language in Peter Nimble is delicate and would roll off your tongue if you read it aloud to your child (which you should!). The narrator coaxes us through the story, and respects us enough as readers to not interrupt the flow of the story or condescend us the way some narrators can. In fact, I missed the narrator when he wasn't speaking directly to me!
When the book ended, I was not only left with the satisfaction a great story brings, but with the idea that each one of us is important and can make a difference in the world. The idea that we need to embrace our talents and be who we are- not what people want us to be. The idea that we can learn from our past. but our past doesn't define us in the present. And the idea that people need people to love and to love them- that family is a bigger treasure than anything you will find in a sea chest. Indeed, this is a book that could quite possibly steal The Newbery right out from under all of the other books I have read so far this year.
*The book includes art done by the author.
See also this great review of Peter Nimble by Betsy Bird (of Fuse8)