The Prairie Thief
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The Prairie Thief

4.3 3
by Melissa Wiley, Erwin Madrid

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In this “delightful mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and The Spiderwick Chronicles” (SLJ), experience life on the prairie—with one fantastical twist!

Louisa Brody’s life on the Colorado prairie is not at all what she expected. Her dear Pa, accused of thievery, is locked thirty miles away in jail. She’s living with


In this “delightful mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and The Spiderwick Chronicles” (SLJ), experience life on the prairie—with one fantastical twist!

Louisa Brody’s life on the Colorado prairie is not at all what she expected. Her dear Pa, accused of thievery, is locked thirty miles away in jail. She’s living with the awful Smirches, her closest neighbors and the very family that accused her Pa of the horrendous crime. And now she’s discovered one very cantankerous—and magical—secret beneath the hazel grove. With her life flipped upside-down, it’s up to Louisa, her sassy friend Jessamine, and that cranky secret to save Pa from a guilty verdict.

Ten bold illustrations from Erwin Madrid accompany seasoned storyteller Melissa Wiley’s vibrant and enchanting tale of life on the prairie—with one magical twist.

Editorial Reviews

“Wiley has created an appealing heroine in 12-year-old Louisa Brody and an involving adventure to help her exonerate her jailed father. There’s also humor thanks to the wee Scottish brownie who has found his way out onto the prairie. Wiley’s cleverly constructed story…is not only a fine tall tale but also gives some sense of nineteenth-century frontier life.”
From the Publisher
"Fans of the Little House books will recognize the setting and enjoy the fantastic twist. Stylized black-and-white illustrations capture key moments and add to the warm tone. The comedic, unexpected, satisfying conclusion hits just the right note. A pleasing folkloric/historical blend."—Kirkus Reviews
Children's Literature - Rachelle Andrade
No matter what her neighbors think, Louisa Brody knows that her father is not a thief. When sweet, mild-mannered Louisa is sent to live with the very people who are responsible for putting her Pa behind bars, she knows that she must somehow clear his name. Mrs. Smirch, whose husband was the victim of the crime, does everything she can to make life miserable for Louisa and for the Smirch's newly orphaned niece Jessamine, who is also forced to reside with the family. Meanwhile, all the evidence seems to point to her Pa's guilt, and in the historical prairie town of Fletcher, thievery is a hanging offense! Louisa begins to despair of ever finding the real thief until Jessamine divulges the strange occurrences that she has noticed in the hazel grove on the prairie. Although only humoring the imaginative youngster at first, Louisa is soon caught up in a world that she thought only existed in folklore and fairy tales. She is soon confronted with a choice to give up the identity, and possibly the freedom, of her strange new friend, or to let her Pa be found guilty of a crime that he didn't commit. This fiction story for those in the middle grades offers elements of mystery and fantasy, while introducing readers to the harsh reality of early life on the American prairie. A handful of charming black and white illustrations help the reader to envision some of the characters and scenes in the story, while still leaving much to the imagination. Young readers or parents who enjoy reading aloud will have fun with the whimsical, accented dialogue of the Scottish-born characters. Suspenseful, sentimental, and comedic at times, this story is fun and interesting, with a surprise ending that will leave readers smiling and satisfied. Reviewer: Rachelle Andrade
School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—Louisa is distraught and confused when her Pa is accused of stealing from their neighbors, the Smirches. To make matters worse, she has to stay with them while her father awaits his trial in jail. The atmosphere in her temporary living situation is toxic, but Louisa finds a bright spot in Jessamine, the Smirches's orphaned niece. Jessamine is full of life, and at first Louisa thinks that she's full of exaggerations, too: Jessamine claims to have seen a gnome. Louisa doesn't believe her-until she comes face to face with the little man herself. Though he seems cantankerous, he has a good heart and is instrumental in facilitating the story's happy ending. Wiley has created a charming, inventive tale that reads like a delightful mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and Tony DiTerlizzi's "The Spiderwick Chronicles" (S & S). Short chapters and the air of mystery and suspense keep the pages turning, and readers will be taken with Louisa, who is sweet and mild-mannered, yet has the strength to fight for what is right. The writing is breezy and lyrical, with lots of dialect to reflect the speech patterns of both the folks in 19th-century Colorado and the gnomes. Occasional full-page black-and-white illustrations are appealing with their painterly appearance and the wide-eyed Pixaresque look of the characters. Some of the characters are rather one-dimensional (Mrs. Smirch is a little too evil; Pa is a little too good), but this is a minor drawback in an otherwise top-notch story.—Amy Holland, Irondequoit Public Library, NY
Kirkus Reviews
How can Louisa save her Pa after he's been accused of thievery, a crime punishable on the prairie by hanging, without breaking the promise she made to another? Even if she tells the truth, who will believe her? Louisa rides a pronghorn antelope across the prairie and sleeps with wolves overnight, all so she can be in town the morning of Pa's trial. Louisa never would have thought such things possible, but then she had never met a brownie before. (Humans were not the only immigrants from the Auld Country.) Making Louisa's travel arrangements is the least the brownie can do for her. After all, he is the one guilty of pilfering items from local homesteads, only according to his reasoning, the items are payment for his services. Fans of the Little House books will recognize the setting and enjoy the fantastic twist for which the author provides an entirely plausible back story. Youngsters will also understand Louisa's dilemma: She empathizes with the brownie, especially after learning he has a connection to her deceased mother, but it is imperative that she prove her Pa's innocence. Stylized black-and-white illustrations capture key moments and add to the warm tone. Some of the characters are clichéd, but the comedic, unexpected, satisfying conclusion hits just the right note. A pleasing folkloric/historical blend. (Fantasy. 8-12)

Product Details

Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


It Ain’t Right

THE SMIRCHES TOOK LOUISA IN WHEN HER PA WENT to jail, but they weren’t happy about it.

“Another mouth to feed,” griped Mrs. Smirch. Her cold eyes looked Louisa up and down. “And she’s too puny to be any help around this place. I can’t fathom what got into your head, Malcolm.”

Mr. Smirch shrugged. His lips were pressed into a thin line. He had the same grim look on his face Louisa’s pa always had when it was time to kill a pig—the look of someone who can’t get out of doing a thing he hates to do.

“Don’t see as we had much choice in the matter, Matilda,” he said. “Sheriff only had the one horse.”

Louisa blinked hard, trying to stop picturing Pa riding away on that horse, hatless, his red hair blowing back, sitting in front of the sheriff with his hands tied, looking over his shoulder at her until the sheriff cuffed him on the arm and made him face front. Before he turned away, Pa had winked at her; that was the worst part. She had almost cried then. But Mr. Smirch had been standing beside her, and she would sooner have died than shed a tear in front of the man who had called the law upon her father.

Now here she was in that man’s own house, being scowled at by his wife, a wispy-haired woman with sharp eyes and a greasy apron. The little Smirch boys, Winthrop and Charlie, stood behind their mother, making faces at Louisa when their pa wasn’t looking. Near the table, a young girl with long straggly braids stood working butter in a churn that was almost as big as she was. She was staring at Louisa, smiling a little as she thumped the wooden dash up and down, up and down. Louisa remembered Mr. Smirch telling her pa—was it really only the day before yesterday?—that his nine-year-old niece had arrived on the train from Topeka a week or two earlier. That had been right before Winthrop came charging down the hill from the old dugout, jabbering about Mrs. Smirch’s missing clock and Mr. Smirch’s lost hatchet. Louisa could still picture the way the friendly look on Mr. Smirch’s face had gone sharp and wary, his eyes narrowing at Pa.

“I never heard of such nonsense,” muttered Mrs. Smirch, hands on her hips. “Man robs us blind, and the sheriff expects us to look after his young’un? Trained to thieve herself, I shouldn’t wonder. You best not try any tricks here, girl, you hear me? There’s room in that there jail cell for you too, and don’t you forget it.”

Louisa breathed hard, too angry to speak. My pa’s no thief, she wanted to holler, but she couldn’t say one word. All she could do was stand there stone-faced, looking at Mrs. Smirch.

“Don’t you glare at me, child. You ought to be grateful we was willin’ to take you in.” Mrs. Smirch whipped around to stir something in a pot on the iron stove, clattering her tin ladle angrily against the sides. Winthrop Smirch, the six-year-old, snickered and stuck out his tongue at Louisa. And to think I gave you fresh biscuits the other day, Louisa thought furiously. She remembered how that visit had ended and had to swallow hard again. If Winthrop and Charlie Smirch hadn’t poked their noses where they didn’t belong, she might not be standing in this miserable kitchen right now.

Mrs. Smirch resumed berating her husband. “Sheriff ought to come back for the child himself, if you ask me. It ain’t right, our havin’ to keep her.”

“It’s thirteen miles each way, Matilda,” said Mr. Smirch wearily. “Man’s got a job to do in town. Can’t be traipsin’ back and forth across the prairie.”

“Then he ought to send someone else to fetch her,” snapped Mrs. Smirch.

“She can ride in the wagon when I take the wheat in,” said Mr. Smirch. “We ain’t got to keep her all that long.”

His wife snorted. “It’ll be weeks before you get that crop in. And her eatin’ us out of house and home all that time.”

Louisa opened her mouth to protest, but she was stopped short by a giggle from the girl at the butter churn. Mrs. Smirch whirled around, clutching her ladle.

“Jessamine! What are you snickerin’ about, girl?” she demanded.

“Sorry, ma’am,” said the little girl. “It’s just . . . I don’t guess Louisa could eat us out of house and home, seeing as she’s so puny and all.”

“Don’t you dare sass me, girl!” Mrs. Smirch brought the tin ladle down—smack—on top of the girl’s head. Louisa gasped. The little girl’s face turned red, and her lips pinched together. She went back to churning, thumping the dash over and over with all her might.

Louisa felt sick to her stomach. She had never seen a grown-up hit a child before. But then, living so far from town, Louisa had hardly ever been around any other families. After the Smirches, the next nearest neighbors were some six miles away.

Maybe, thought Louisa, that was how people in other families treated each other. A horrible ache rose in her throat.

Oh, Pa, she thought. How could you let this happen?

Meet the Author

Melissa Wiley is the author of the Inch and Roly series and other books for children, including The Prairie Thief and two series of novels about the ancestors of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She lives in San Diego with her comic-book-writing husband, a half dozen kids, and about 3,000 books. She blogs about her family’s reading life at Here in the Bonny Glen:

Erwin Madrid is a children’s book illustrator based in San Francisco, where he earned his BFA at the Academy of Art College. He has worked for PDI/Dreamworks Animation on films like Shrek 2 and the Madagascar sequels. He has also done concept art for the gaming industry for titles like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. In his spare time, Erwin travels and goes plein air painting.

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The Prairie Thief 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Melissa has a way of expressing her feelings through her book. I also could tell what her characters, in the book, would have been like by the wording she used. It has a very interesting feel to the story of it. I thought it was sort of boring at times but mostly it was wonderful.   Molly S.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a fifth grade student and this year we read Great Stone face nominees for L.A class. I really enjoyed this book, but thought it had some work to do to appeal to the age range it was targeted for. I think the twist was revealed to quickly, and that Mrs. Smirch shouldn't have been that EVIL. How ever the book had fabulous characters, and there was more to the story then one big twist. I would recpmend theis book for ages 8-12 I think younger then eight people would find Mrs.Smirches behavior startling and children five and below might be distressed by Pa's being in jail. I think children older then 12 would find the story boring. Please reply to third comment if you have any more questions. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago