From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 6–9—A charming tale about Pepper Roux, whose jealous and cruel Aunt Mireille foretells, at his birth, his death at age 14. A devout Catholic, she insists that he learn Last Rites rather than nursery rhymes. When his 14th birthday arrives, Pepper runs away to sea in an attempt to stay a step ahead of death. He steps into many different lives, largely because, as the author repeatedly points out, people see what they expect to see. Pepper becomes the captain of a coffin ship, has a brief career as a journalist who will only write good news, and joins the Foreign Legion (until he realizes that he'll have to kill people). Each role is an adventure that leaves chaos in its wake and good-hearted Pepper one step ahead of getting caught. The story is set in France and has a 1930-ish feel. While the episodic plot may not be its strongest draw, the memorable characters and lyrical prose make the novel hard to put down. Pepper, in all his endearing innocence and goodness, will capture readers' hearts, and Duchesse, the cross-dressing steward, may be the most hilarious yet wise character in children's literature this decade. McCaughrean tackles big issues here: families, faith, loss, jealousy, and the expectations of others. The question with this book may be one of audience: Will kids understand its subtleties and some of the references, particularly the religious and political ones? But in the hands of the right child, this novel will be savored.—Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME
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*Starred Review* McCaughrean has proven to be a remarkably versatile writer, from her Printz Award–winning White Darkness (2008) to Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006). Her latest imagines a young boy who, in unspecified mid-twentieth century France, is told by his spiteful aunt that he’ll be dead by 14. So, hoping to outrun fate, Pepper Roux flees his unhappy home and embarks on a series of plucky misadventures in which he becomes, among other things, the captain of a ship, a deli-meat slicing would-be Cupid, a fact-shrugging journalist, and a reluctant legionnaire. Nearly every episode ends with Pepper scampering away not only from the death he thinks is nipping at his heels, but also all manner of incensed people, culminating in a hectic free-for-all that ties everything together in one charming, messy bow. McCaughrean’s exuberant prose and whirling humor animate an unforgettable cast of characters, from the good-hearted Pepper, who lies and impersonates without the barest inkling of consequence, to the cross-dressing steward who trails along in Pepper’s chaotic wake like a clumsy guardian angel. The whole is a more whimsical, French cousin to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008), with a similar sort of timelessly classic feel that emphasizes the value of finding family, but never at the expense of storytelling that delights in its own joyful sense of improbability. Grades 5-8. --Ian Chipman