The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Avi; Algonquin Young Readers, 320 pages ($16.95) Ages 8 to 12.
This entertaining work of historical fiction, set in 1724, comes from prolific author Avi, who won the 2003 Newbery Medal for "Crispin: The Cross of Lead" set in 14th century England. The unfortunately named Oliver Cromwell Pitts wakes up in his flooded house in a small English village by the sea in 1724 to find himself quite alone, with no food, no money and a soaked, mostly illegible scrawled letter from his father indicating he has gone to London. (Oliver's mother died giving birth to him, his older sister Charity escaped the tiny seaside village for a better life in London and his alcoholic lawyer of a father has made enemies of everyone in town with his obnoxious ways and his success as a gambler.)
Friendless, penniless Oliver is first locked away in the dismal local orphanage, then sets off for London, a perilous journey that sends him into the path of highwaymen, corrupt officials, conniving and avaricious relatives and a "justice system" that delivers no justice. Oliver narrates this engaging tale but the novel's real strength lies in the vivid descriptions of London and the depictions of the farce of 18th century "justice" as practiced in the Old Bailey and the prisons of the period (where prisoners are charged for the privilege of being incarcerated). Oliver's first impression of London: "Mazes of narrow streets bent and twisted now this direction, now that, filled to their boundaries with garbage, filth fairly flowing down center gutters. Mud and dust everywhere. Within the city, the smell I had noted from afar was much intensified - dung, offal, rotting food, dead animals, rats, cats and dogs... And the noise! A constant drumming of jabber, buzzes, chatter, shouts and screams..." And in the Old Bailey, the judges "put me in mind of a row of birds of prey sitting on a fence." "(A starring role is played by Great Britain's actual preeminent criminal Jonathan Wild, model for many literary criminal masterminds.) A sequel is planned.
5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel and Alexis Siegel; illustrated by Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller and Boya Sun; Random House BFYR, 256 pages ($18.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Oona Lee, the clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy, teams up with slum kid An Tzu and celebrity athlete Jax Amboy on a desperate mission to save the 5 Worlds from extinction in this marvelous, mind-bending first installment of a new middle-grade sci fi/fantasy adventure series. The art work is dazzling; the rich characterizations and epic sweep of the tale are a bit reminiscent of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and "The Legend of Korra." The next adventure is titled: 5W2: The Cobalt Prince."
The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Jerry Pinkney; Little, Brown ($17.99)
Is redemption possible for an evil troll? Can a goat forgive and forget? Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney offers a morality lesson in this reimagining of the classic Norwegian fairy tale. The tale sticks to the original with the repetitive "Who's that trip-trapping over my bridge" making this a fun read-aloud, until Pinkney adds a new and mightier opponent capable of delivering justice. His marvelous, energetic illustrations include a fold-out page at the tale's dramatic highpoint. Pinkney has previously reimagined Aesop's fables ("The Lion & the Mouse," "The Grasshopper & the Ants," "The Tortoise & the Hare.").