Author, B. S. Gibbs, summarizes this as a “chapter book for kids … illustrated with a dozen intricate, beautiful drawings.” True. The attorney/storyteller inspired by Jane Austen, light fantasy, “and all things medieval,” goes on to tout Janetta and the Book Thief as a trove of positive pleas for reading, kindness, inclusiveness, and anti-bullying. Those things are apparent. What is not immediately evident, yet makes the 47-page story stand out, is its elegant plot, straightforward prose, and ability to be a great discussion-starter.
The story is largely uncomplicated. That makes the read ideal for third- to fifth-graders whose energy levels almost forbid them to focus on anything that moves slowly. Gibbs’ mystery tale about someone who takes the last chapters of books is easy to follow and grasp, which is the book’s strength and weakness.
Janetta, the main character, chases down the who and why behind the thefts, which first struck me as a weird story element. What is the value of the last chapter of a book?
I then looked at the work from some other angles. I considered what life might be if the last chapter of every story disappeared. The incompleteness hit me. I was able to connect with Janetta’s motivation. The character says, “I can’t imagine my life without reading!”
To that extent, Gibbs’ heroine might interest a reader, yet comes off as too perfect (apologies, but that is the only word that comes to mind) to square with reality. An average 8- to 12-year-old is not obsessed with reading, despite most parents’ wishes.
The fairies who invite Janetta to Eloria, the book-fairy land, Queen Esmeralda and the villain, Sir Grumpsalot, do not have enough edge to compete with the kinds of characters contemporary grade-schoolers find in other books and on television. Gibbs’ chapter book reminded me of plots and characters I have read in works from some Latin American writers. That is the book’s major shortfall.
A minor one is a slip in the digital layout. In the Kindle version I perused, several of artist Anca Gabriela Marginean’s illustrations slid into the lines above them. Sentences were obscured, which distracts the reader. The saving grace is that the story is pretty easy to grasp, so the gaffs do not cause a person to get lost.
Those elements aside, teachers and parents will find that the message about the effects of bullying in Janetta and the Book Thief and the power of one kind act to change a person’s life overtakes most of the work’s weakness.
Janetta tells her fairy friend Violetta that Sir Grumpsalot, “rejects all of you so that you cannot reject him.” That defensive stance is at the heart of many rubs and scrapes, even in adult life. The line is a great place to launch a discussion with young people on a bully’s motivation, or offer them insight as to why they indulge in brusque acts.
Fear is powerful, as the story makes clear. “I believe he also tells himself that he doesn’t like any of you. But, I believe he desperately wants to be friends. He just doesn’t know how and he is scared to try.”
I won’t give away the end. Gibbs’ story is a saga about loves. Janetta loves books. Book fairies love to inspire writers. Grumpsalot loves to be mysterious. As those elements collide the reader comes to a happy conclusion. The path is worth a glance. Violetta and the other fairies learn that no one is beyond redemption. For youth today, that is a most important lesson.