Steampunk for kids--was four, now six books from 2010

Originally I had four books in my list, now I'm up to six. It might change again....

Here I am, squeaking in under the wire with a post for Steampunk/Alternate History Week...(the round-up is here at Chasing Ray).

"Steampunk" is a rather loose-fitting term when it comes to middle-grade books. Strictly speaking, it implies steam technology, but in books for younger readers, it becomes more a flavor than a clearly-defined subgenre--a flavor that can include various combinations clockwork devices, steam-powered machines, alternate history, and ingenious folks (possibly using technology) pitting their wits against hostile forces (also possibly using gadgetry). Technology and magic go hand in hand in these stories, and the devices of human making are as wondrous as the (optional) fantastical elements that can't be explained by science.

Over at School Library Journal a little while ago, Heather Campbell complied a brilliant list of steampunk books for kids and teens. In this past year, several more steampunkish books have come out that are worthy of attention, and so, for your clockworkish reading pleasure, here they are.

The Brimstone Key (Grey Griffins--The Clockwork Chronicles, Book 1), by Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis (Little Brown 2010, 384 pages). This new series continues the story of four kids who call themselves the Grey Griffins, whose lives were changed forever when they became involved in dark and dangerous magical adventures.

In this new series, Max and his gang are enrolled in a school run by the Knights Templar (a shadowy order that exists to protect ordinary people from monsters and magical mayhem). All does not go smoothly--a mysterious and legendary figure, the Clockwork King, set in motion a century ago a nefarious plan. He has devised a way to transfer changeling spirits into an army of clockwork automatons...and somehow the Grey Griffins must find a way to stop him...

This should have appeal to fans of steampunk because of the plot's focus on clockwork machines, and because the kids at the school are currently enjoying a phase of retro-steampunky Victorian fashions, but really it's more comfortable in the "magical school trains special kids" genre of fantasy. It's an action-filled adventure of a book, not desperately deep or emotionally compelling, but imaginative and interesting enough to appeal to its intended audience. (review copy received from the publisher for Cybils reading purposes)

Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2010, 496 pages) This sequel to last year's Leviathan, on the other hand, is just as steampunky as all get out. Alernate history? check. Steam-powered technology? check. Wildly imaginative adventures combining the two? check. In an alternate World War I, the Germanic Clankers (steam technology) face off against the Darwinist Brits (technology through modification of living creatures). Two kids, a boy who's the heir to the Autro-Hungarian Empire and a girl disguised as a boy, serving as a midshipman on a British air-ship, are caught in an adventure of tangled loyalties and great danger, set against a backdrop of utterly magical worldbuilding.

It's thought provoking and exciting, and I highly recommend it, but you should read Leviathan first. Amazon has this as YA, but it's one that's great for the older mg crowd. (review copy received for the Cybils)

The Celestial Globe, by Marie Rutkoski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 304 pages). Lifted from my review, back last spring: "Back in 2008, I enjoyed Marie Rutkoski's first book, The Cabinet of Wonders, very much; so much so that I helped shortlist it for the Cybils that year. So I opened its sequel, The Celestial Globe, with much hopeful anticipation....and was very pleased indeed to find it even more enthralling than the first book. It includes attacking monsters, imprisoned elemental spirits, treachery, nautical adventuring, friendship, fencing lessons, a murder mystery, and my favorite fictional mechanical spider, all in a well-written package.

In The Cabinet of Wonders, Petra and her gypsy friend Neel, with help from a mechanical spider friend, had thwarted the plans of the twisted Prince Rudolfo of Bohemia to take over the world. Neel rejoined his Gypsy kin, Petra returned to her village, and for a brief span it seemed that all was well again.

But as The Celestial Globe begins, the prince has sent monsters to attack Petra and her father. Her father is captured, but Petra escapes, saved by John Dee, the Elizabethan magician with whom she had forged a mind link in the first book. Trying to save her, her village friend Tomick plunges through a hole in space, and finds himself a prisoner of the same gypsies that Neel had joined...

Petra in London chaffs against her virtual imprisonment by the powerful and enigmatic Dee. She is caught up in a web of murder and intrigue, developing her own magical skills under Dee's tutelage. Meanwhile, Tomick's fate hangs in the balance--will he be sold into slavery by the Sea Gypsies, or will he be able to continue his search for Petra? The Gypsies are searching themselves for the Celestial Globe, a magical artifact that would give them the ultimate freedom of travel, and an escape from persecution. And all signs point toward London...where Petra is already at work solving the mystery."

I'm counting this as steampunk because of the mechanical spider and the Celestial Globe are both Devices of the highest order, and because although it's not full-fledged alternate history, it does venture that way. John Dee, the Elizabeth magician, is a central character, using his magical powers in the service of queen and country (at least, that seems to be the case; I'm not sure I trust him) in ways that never happened in real history.

The Clockwork Three, by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pages). Three children, living in an alternate Victorian era American city, find their lives bound together as each struggles to achieve an impossible dream. For Guiseppe, it's to earn enough money busking to return to Italy, for Hannah it's to earn enough money to support her family now that her father has fallen ill, and for Frederick, it's to create a clockwork automaton and become a full fledged guild member. It's a complicated story, that requires some faith on the part of the reader that all the disparate threads will come together, but they never quite did, for me. However, there's plenty of adventure, plenty of "brave children struggling against impossible odds" and a dash of mystery and wonder. And, just in fairness to this book, Betsy over at Fuse #8 liked it lots.

Edited to add:

The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt (David Fickling, 368 pages). There is no steam involved in this story, but the clockwork creatures are the utterly scariest ones I have encountered to date. From my review--"...the titular toymaker makes automatons come to life by wiring their clockwork to living hearts. Sparrow hearts, to start with...they're easy to come by." Part exciting adventure, part horror story, it's thought provoking and beautifully written...and deeply disturbing.

The Dark Deeps, by Arthur Slade (Wendy Lamb, mg/ya, 320 pages). I'd thought this was covered in the SLJ article, but I see that just book 1, The Hunchback Assignments, was included. I haven't read that first one, but apparently it is very steampunky, what with the nefarious doings of the Clockwork Guild. In The Dark Deeps, young Modo, the eponymous hunchback, is sent on another mission--to find out who, or what, has been sinking every ship that passes through a particular piece of the North Atlantic. The Clockwork Guild appears in this book too, there's funky technology combined with funky extraordinary-ness, there are gears on the cover, and there's a noir feel to it, all of which combine to make this one "steampunk" too. (Thanks, Jacquie, for reminding me of this one!)

And just for the 2010 record: other books published (in the US) this year, and included in the School Library Journal article so not discussed here, include Fever Crumb, by Philip Reeve, and Worldshaker, by Richard Harland.

Any other middle grade books of 2010 you think of as Steampunk? Let me know!

Edited (again) to add, from readers' suggestions, Haywired,by Alex Keller, and The Wolf Tree (Book 2 of the Clockwork Dark) by John Claude Bemis. I haven't read either of these yet....


  1. Thanks for the recommendations. There is also "The Hunchback Assignments" and its sequel "The Dark Deeps" by Arthur Slade.

  2. Thanks Jacquie! I've added Dark Deeps.

  3. Terrific list! Thanks for pulling this together.
    Steampunk was big, big, big, the last time I went to Dragon*Con.

    I was kind of surprised to see it taking off so much, because I couldn't name a huge blockbuster book or movie, necessarily. (not like what Harry Potter did for wizards, or Twilight did for vampires)

    It really seems like there's a groundswell of interest and the books are following, not the other way around.

  4. Hey Charlotte--your post and the Chasing Ray roundup have inspired me to post about my take on steampunk over at Book Aunt! (I linked you both.)

  5. There is also Haywired by Alex Keller.

  6. I'm excited to read these. :) Would Owl Keeper count as a steampunk?

  7. John Claude Bemis' "The Wolf Tree" came out this yer, and I certainly consider the Clockwork
    Dark trilogy steampunk, with an American folktale aspect.

  8. Thanks John and Kaethe--I've added your titles.

    I didn't think Owl Service was steampunky, though, Heather....but it's a blurry boundary.

  9. Nice list. there aren't too many lists out there with Family friendly Steampunk books on the web.
    I enjoyed Boneshaker (Cherie Priest) but it had a few moments that would make me say this one should lean more toward the older of the kid crowd... probably teens.
    The Golden Compass series is still one of my favorites.
    I just read Brightbuckle (P.E. Musik) and that was fun. It's got a little bit of Steampunk, a little bit of back to the future and Fringe all mixed into one. It's family friendly too.
    Some of the collections of short stories, like "Steampunk'd" are really good too. For some reason I think this genre is very comfortable in a short format.
    Don't forget the classics! Verne and Wells!
    'Looking forward to more posts!

  10. Thanks for the recommendation--I'll look out for it! I haven't ever sat down and read Verne myself--someday I really must.


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