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Top 100 Children’s Novels #13: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

#13 The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1997)
93 points

I wish this series had been out when I was a kid! One of the best written ever. – Martha Sherod

A classic adventure story that’s still less than 20 years old. I love Gen, and loved being completely surprised by the ending the first time around. – Libby Gorman

When we were reading to both our kids together, my older son said we had to read this book next. I was skeptical, but by the time I finished, I was a complete fan. And it grows on me with each rereading — because I notice more clever things each time. – Sondra Eklund

Eugenides may be my favorite literary character that I would not want to actually hang out with in real life. – Ann Carpenter

While I might love the later books in the series a bit more, it’s easier to argue that this one is a middle grade book. Plus, it’s where it all started and it features one of my favorite fictional twists ever. – Jessalyn Gale

Previously #83 on this list I have this mental image of Eugenides taking a flying leap and crawling his way up a book 70 places to reside here in the top twenty at last.  The last time I conducted this poll I wondered what would happen if Ms. Turner’s vast fan network were aware of this poll.  This time around it seems they still didn’t hear about it in time.  Otherwise you can bet he’d be residing proudly at #1.

The plot, as described on the author’s own website, reads, “The most powerful advisor to the King of Sounis is the magus. He’s not a wizard, he’s a scholar, an aging solider, not a thief. When he needs something stolen, he pulls a young thief from the King’s prison to do the job for him.  Gen is a thief and proud of it. When his bragging lands him behind bars he has one chance to win his freedom– journey to a neighboring kingdom with the magus, find a legendary stone called Hamiathes’s Gift and steal it.  Simple really, except for the mountains in between, the temple under water, and the fact that no one has ever gone hunting Hamiathes’s Gift and returned alive. The magus has plans for his King and his country. Gen has plans of his own.”

The Thief, as it turns out, was only Turner’s second book.  This might surprise some folks who find her writing to be particularly good.  Yet her first published title was actually a short story collection called Instead of Three Wishes.  And how did she get that published?  In an interview with HipWriterMama she said, “I owe it all to Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended my work to Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow.”  In her entry in Contemporary Authors Online, some note is made of the creation of this book.  “Published the year after Instead of Three Wishes, Turner’s debut novel The Thief was inspired by a vacation she and her husband took to Greece, where they became steeped in the history and landscape of the Mediterranean.”  Prior to that she’d had a vague idea for a book.  “I did have an idea in mind about a group of people traveling together with one severely undervalued member of the party, but I couldn’t start writing until I decided on the setting.”  With Greece, that little problem was solved.

This is the first in a series too.  The next books to follow (so far anyway) were The Queen of Attolia (2000), The King of Attolia (2006), and A Conspiracy of Kings (2010).

The fans are . . . let’s just call them dedicated.  I once posted a review of The King of Attolia on my blog and a crew from the Eddis, Attolia, Sounis Livejournal community came on over for a field trip.

In 1997 Turner’s second published book and first novel, The Thief, was one of four books to be named Newbery Honor books that year.  The ultimate winner?  A View From Saturday.

By the way, I particularly love this quote from Ms. Turner as well: “All I can say is that endings are very important to me as a reader and so they are important to me as a writer. I really resent stories without endings. I was once very flattered to be lumped in the same category as Frank Stockton, but that’s because of The Griffin and the Minor Cannon. Don’t get me started on “The Lady or the Tiger?

  • You may read some of the book here.
  • You can hear Ms. Turner talk about the possible film here.

Publishers Weekly said of the book, “In addition to its charismatic hero, this story possesses one of the most valuable treasures of all-a twinkling jewel of a surprise ending.”

Said VOYA, “Clever and well-written, The Thief is well deserving of the Newbery Honor it received, and its place on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults. The narration flows, the characters are well developed and believable, and there is plenty of action and suspense.”

School Library Journal thought that, “This book is sure to be a hot item with adventure and fantasy lovers.”

Finally, Kirkus said, “This is an uplifting book, a literary journey that enriches both its characters and readers before it is over.”

There aren’t many covers, but what they have vary widely:




And if you’d like to see the Japanese edition of this book (as well as the interior art), go here.

Greenwillow recently made a book trailer for it too.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This is truly a remarkable book. Not that the rest in the series aren’t just as remarkable, but everything about the ending of this one was SO unexpected; even with the next one you kept waiting for the twist.

    And let’s face it, anything recommended by DWJ HAS to be genius.

  2. Yes! My favorite! I’m glad to see it take such a huge leap.

  3. YES!!!
    I kept wondering if someone was going to post on Sounis that the poll was happening again. (I didn’t because I thought it wouldn’t be playing fair. Not that Gen would care much about that.)

  4. Love the leap! I think it only gets better from here, but this particular book does fit most in the children’s section.

  5. Brandy, I’m glad that you played fair and didn’t alert Sounis. As much as I adore THE THIEF and his cohorts–especially Costis–this is an excellent and appropriate spot.

  6. Last time I didn’t vote for The Thief, because Queen of Attolia was my favorite, and there was a YA list going, and I voted for QofA on that list. Then I was upset that The Thief was so low in the rankings! So I made sure to include it this time. Because it is one of my favorite children’s novels, and judging by how young my boys were when we read it, definitely a children’s novel, in my view.