If the title alone isn’t enough to grab you, perhaps the cover will, with its intricate navy blue illustrations and the bright pops of orange text. There is a sort of offbeat jaunty ambience to this book, both in illustration and narrative style, that would be well-suited to a Wes Anderson movie.
This is the story of Charlie, the neglected and lonely son of an American diplomat, stationed in 1960’s Marseille, France. One day, Charlie meets Amir who is a member of the Whiz Mob, a ragtag team of child pickpockets. Gradually, Charlie insinuates himself into the gang of street urchins, learning the tricks of their criminal trade. As he increasingly embroils himself in the antics of the mob, an undercurrent of uneasiness develops between he and Amir. Charlie’s privileged background collides with the vagabond lifestyle Amir leads. As the story unfolds, Charlie must question his personal values, his abilities, and his association to Amir and the Whiz Mob. It is both a coming-of-age tale and a romping heist.
This book is marketed to 8-12 year olds; and lest you question the appropriateness of this story for young people, please be assured, Colin Meloy deftly addresses moments of questionable suitability and morality with a tongue-in-cheek wit. Such is the case when the children toast each other with glasses of champagne, Charlie empties his without drinking it, and Meloy writes:
“Say what you will about Charlie Fisher and the serial larceny he’d been accomplice to for the last several weeks, he wasn’t about to go so delinquent as to drink alcohol. Besides, if he did, what librarian or bookseller would possibly order this book, let alone recommend it to a bright and studious reader such as yourself?”
These moments, in which the narrator addresses the reader directly, are sprinkled throughout the story. Perhaps my favorite use of the literary device came at the start of Chapter Thirteen:
“Watch closely. You are looking down from the topmost spire of the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde; you are witnessing the passing of time in this ancient port city… From your vantage, you can see it all. Let’s not spend too much time pondering how you got up to where you are, or more pressingly, how you expect to get down; let’s instead marvel at your omniscience, your incredible perspective from that height as the world turns around you”.
Colin Meloy’s writing is both humorous and affecting. So, too, are the illustrations from Carson Ellis. I was a big fan of Meloy and Ellis’ previous foray into the world of children’s literature, the Wildwood Chronicles, which were full of beautifully detailed illustrations. Though I suspect it was a conscious, stylistic choice to keep the illustrations in The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid simple, I missed the slightly more elaborate ones characteristic of their previous books.
Certainly 8-12 year olds will love this book. I think adults will also delight in this story. The street slang used by the Whiz Mob, alone, will tickle readers; with a handy glossary of the gang’s jargon in the back pages. Grown-up readers may predict the ending a bit too easily, but young readers will be delighted by the inevitable, elegant, resolution.