The Good Thieves

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Kids fight gangsters in thrilling, heart-filled 1920s tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Lots of vocabulary-enhancing words here (e.g., "Rapscallion," her grandfather's pet name for Vita), and words/phrases in Russian, Spanish, etc. One of Arkady's pet crows is named Rasklonikov after character in Crime and Punishment. Also lots about day-to-day life in 1920s New York City, plus Prohibition and its unexpected side effects, from illicit booze to violent gangs. All the young characters are recent arrivals in the U.S., and we see the world through their individual experiences as they encounter racial prejudice (one of them is from Africa), snobbery, and gangster-hosted, alcohol-fueled parties frequented by rich and famous.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about family, friendship, courage, kindness, creative thinking, finding your own path in life. Also determination and perseverance despite obstacles and opposition.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Adults getting drunk, running bootleg operations, swindling, cheating, murdering are all part of plot. Pitted against them are brave, resourceful kids whose reluctance to do what they're told, especially about accepting limitations, turns out to save the day in many ways. Everyone's skills, talents, character strengths come to the fore at crucial moments. Adult family members are loving and supportive, even if they don't always see things the same way as the kids. A mother and daughter drink blackberry cordial when they get bad news.

Violence & Scariness

Plot involves the kids avoiding a gun-toting gangster trying to kidnap or kill them because Vita's taken something that incriminates him in a murder. Vita's knife-throwing skills, taught by her beloved grandfather, come in handy; also, kicking and punching. Rock-throwing skills come to the rescue when a thug tries to grab her in the park. Vita's father was killed in the Great War (World War I). A gangster has two tortoises with jewels on their shells ("Doesn't it hurt them?" asked Vita. "Hurt them? Don't be crazy, they're animals") and wants to kill them for the jewels. A villain's over-pomaded hair catches fire. At a crucial moment when Vita could kill her would-be killer, she heeds her grandfather's advice -- "Your weapon in life is not going to be a knife" -- and spares him.


Minor references to poop, especially of animals. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the bad guys are pretty bad in The Good Thieves, the inventive tale by Katherine Rundell (Rooftoppers), which is set in 1920s New York. Aside from bootlegging, speakeasies, and the occasional murder, villains go around swindling unsuspecting people out of their homes. One of their recent victims is the elderly grandpa of tween main character Vita, fresh off the boat from Liverpool and determined to get the family home back from the gangster who's taken possession. In short order she puts together a band of kids her age, all recent arrivals -- an Irish pickpocket and two boys from the circus, one Russian and one African -- to make things right. As one of them says, "It's stealing back what was already stolen! Good thieves!" The kids face many perils from the villains, and, as the title suggests, often do things that would be questionable in real life. But it's all in service of a girl's love for her family, the willingness of an unlikely band of kids to help, and their talents and character strengths that come into play as they strive to right a great wrong. There's more than a bit of magic and unreality in the whole premise of tweens on a quest to find Vita's grandfather's lost castle in upstate New York and the treasure it contains. But there's also a lot of heart and determination to live your dreams and help your loved ones.

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What's the story?

THE GOOD THIEVES takes place in 1920s Manhattan, a time of gangsters, speakeasies, bootlegging, and bloodshed. This is also when a lot of hopeful people came to the United States from all over the world seeking a better life. Among them is young Vita, newly arrived with her mom on a boat from Liverpool to rescue her grandfather. He's fallen on hard times since a gangster swindled him out of the family home, a decrepit old-world castle in upstate New York. Vita's already survived the death of her father in the Great War (World War I) and years of hospitalization with polio, which left her with a bad leg and a strong bond with the grandfather and mentor who helped her heal (and made her an expert knife thrower). So she's determined to get the castle back. She soon has unlikely allies in Arkady, son of the owner of the circus at Carnegie Hall, and Ben, an aspiring acrobat. Also Silk, an orphan who's been thieving to survive forever. They'll need all their skills and teamwork just to stay alive, though, as they've made themselves a target for the most murderous gangster in town, aka the one who stole the castle.

Is it any good?

Inventive storyteller Katherine Rundell takes us to 1920s Manhattan in a sweet, scary, swashbuckling adventure pitting an unlikely band of tweens against the most murderous gangster in New York. The gangster in question quickly finds his life is a lot more complicated since he encountered tenacious, red-headed Vita (an unexpected consequence of stealing the family home from her unsuspecting grandpa), and things really escalate when she absconds with a piece of evidence that implicates the mobster in a notorious murder. As Vita and her friends dodge their would-be killers while pursuing their quest for hidden treasure (and to restore the smile on her grandpa's face), The Good Thieves face bad guys, perils, and dicey situations aplenty in a fast-moving plot with unexpected developments galore, and also sweet moments.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the 1920s are portrayed in The Good Thieves. What things in the story do you think have changed for the better in today's world? Has anything changed for the worse?

  • The Good Thieves describes the polio epidemics of the early 20th century, and their devastating impact on polio patients like Vita. What other stories do you know of people who've had to cope with polio and its lifelong consequences? How did things change for them, and how did they stay the same?

  • The long-lost family fortune -- getting it back, obsessing over it, wondering whether it ever existed at all -- has been a popular theme in storytelling forever. What other books with this theme have you read, and how does The Good Thieves compare with them?

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For kids who love adventure and historical fiction

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