Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, written by Jonathan Auxier, 381 pp, RL 4


You don’t have to read far into Jonathan Auxier's debut novel Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes (for which he also provided the excellent chapter illustrations) to know that this is an author who has a happy and healthy relationship with classic children’s literature. In fact, the title alone reveals this. Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens and JM Barrie came to mind when I first glimpsed the title and cover art for this book on Chad W Beckerman’s blog several months ago and, upon reading I found that these impressions were not wrong. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes reads like a classic while at the same time standing out on the shelves as a book that feels new and uncommon. As I said about Cathrynne M Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, it is very hard to write a book that echoes the classics and sounds authentic, while at the same time creating a story that is filled with original characters, settings and plot twists. Both Valente and Auxier meet these challenges admirably, excitingly and in their own different ways. While Valente is clearly influenced by Lewis Carroll, Auxier’s book reflects a love of the authors mentioned above with a splash of Treasure Island thrown in to the mix. As Betsy Bird said of the book in her review at fuse#8, "It is incredibly difficult to write a book for the youth of today that is interesting to them and yet manages to feel 'timeless' without covering itself in must and dust. That Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes succeeds in this endeavor is a testament not only to its author but to a publishing world that's willing to put out something that doesn't slot into the usual five categories of books for youth." One of the ways in which Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes lives up to this high praise form Bird is to not shy away from are a handful of grim details and suspenseful moments that are occasionally gruesome. It is these very passages that give the book its authentic tone and make it all the more suspenseful and exciting. As Auxier said in an interview with Kate Milford at The Enchanted Inkpot, "Books can only feel like adventures if actual danger is being skirted." He goes on to say, "I think the key with dark or creepy material in children’s literature lies in treating it like parenting at Disneyland - feel free to take your kid on 'Splash Mountain,' but when it becomes too intense, put your arm around them and cover their eyes." I couldn't agree more.

The story begins with the infant Peter set to sea in a basket, his eyes pecked out by the ravens perched on the rim of the basket. Peter is rescued by a group of “drunken but goodhearted” sailors, although that turns out to be the best thing that happens to him for the next ten years. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is told mostly from the viewpoint of Peter, which means that the reader experiences the world much as Peter does, by skillfully listening and feeling his way through life. Auxier has said that he is a very visual writer and "it was pretty difficult to find ways to create pictures in a reader’s mind without actually describing what things looked like." He spent much of the editing process going through the book "(again and again!) to find places where I had accidentally failed to use Peter’s other senses to describe a scene." To balance out the novel and make use of Auxier's wonderful descriptive skills, there is also the unobtrusive third person narrator to provide ample descriptions of the fabulous (and sometimes bleak) worlds that Peter stumbles into.Out of necessity, Peter teaches himself to steal and, at the age of five is noticed by the local beggarmonger.Peter is taken under the wing (for better or for worse, mostly worse) of Mr Seamus, a"wiry man with meaty hands and an enormous head" who has been "unable to live out his dream of becoming a cat burglar" because of his clumsy touch. In lieu of his dream, Mr Seamus has taken up the career of beggarmonger, adopting orphans, maiming them and sending them out into the streets to beg for him. Five years and much cruel treatment later, Mr Seamus has trained Peter to be the most skilled (and most miserable and mistreated) lock pick in town.

However, Peter’s fate takes a turn with the arrival of a mysterious haberdasher who spots him (out working as a pickpocket) in the crowd as he is giving his spiel for caps that magically remove the reek of living in a run down port town from the wearer. Peter is called up onto the stage to vouch for the efficacy of the cap and that is when he feels the amazing collection of intricate locks on the haberdasher’s carriage behind him. Intrigued, Peter returns that night to pick the locks and find out what they are protecting. Peter finds the treasure, a locked box, and returns to Mr Seamus’ bleak basement to open it. Disappointed, he finds that the box holds six eggs. When he cracks the eggs to quiet his grumbling stomach, he finds the viscous whites surrounding hard spheres that radiate warmth when he holds them. But, being blind, Peter has no idea what he is holding. He tries to find the haberdasher in the hope that he will reveal the purpose of these "yolks" but instead finds his poor horse, which is really a zebra, being teased and abused by a gang of hooligans. Peter uses his considerable skills to rescue the horse and punish the boys. In return, the zebra removes Peter's bandage and nudges him to place the "yolks" in his empty eye sockets. When he finally understands what the creature wants him to do, he follows directions and promptly vanishes into thin air.

This is when the adventure, and Auxier’s imagination really takes off (as if it hadn't already!) The people and places that Peter encounters are increasingly odd, exciting and dangerous. The first (and best, in my opinion) creature Peter encounters is Sir Tode, a somewhat dubious knight who, due to an unfortunate curse, is part horse, part cat. Many reviewers have commented on the fact that very little is seen of Sir Tode in Auxier's pen and ink illustrations. I, for one, am happy to only have had glimpses of the knight, mostly from behind. I prefer to leave the appearance of a horse-cat to my imagination and Auxier's verbal descriptions. Under the guidance of Professor Cake, the two set off aboard the Scop (also the name of Mr Auxier's website as well as an Old English word meaning poet or minstrel) and head for the Vanished Kingdom where they hope to right a wrong, make a rescue and maybe even find the hag who can reverse Sir Tode's curse. At 381 pages, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes might seem long but once you start reading you fall into Peter Nimble's world and never want it to end. As always when I have read a great book, I have to stop myself from telling the whole plot in my review, and this was no exception. I revised this more than once, cutting out huge paragraphs of descriptions of the people and places that populate this wonderful book. And I didn't even begin to talk about King Incarnadine, the bad guy! That would take up a few more paragraphs and I really just want you all to get out there and read this book! If you have any young adventurers at home, I urge you to buy this book to read out loud to them, or give to them to curl up with in a corner and devour. And buy it now, in hardcover because I guarantee you that your kids will grow up and remember this book and want it to read to their children. It is indeed that kind of book.

This has to be one of the most enticing, well composed book trailers I have seen to date! If you have slightly more than a minute to spare and my review has not convinced you to read this book, the trailer will!

Some initial ideas for the completely enchanting cover (and first three pages) of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes illustrated by Gibert Ford ofThe Secret Series fame. Interestingly enough, Gilbert Ford also did the cover art for Tom Angleberger's superb Horton Halfpott, while Mr Angleberger provided the interior illustrations, just like Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes!

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