Thursday, January 10, 2008


GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd (Candlewick)
Nowadays, with YouTube and My Space and television and media and thousands of books published every year, Andy Warhol's expectation of everyone getting "fifteen minutes of fame" has far surpassed itself. But what about people before Gutenberg, before the advent of television and computers? How is life documented, how is life remembered, how are lives celebrated? Where go the stories of the everyman? Perhaps all that's left of centuries ago has dissipated into the ethers and imaginations of the new generation, and certainly into the imagination of author Laura Amy Schlitz.

Schlitz, a gifted teacher as well as an author, wrote the pieces in this book for a group of her students. "They were studying the Middle Ages and were going at it hammer and tongs. I wanted them to have something to perform, but no one wanted a small part. So I decided to write monologues instead of one long play, so that for three minutes at least, every child could be a star." In short poems and soliloquies, we meet the members of a Medieval village. Right out of the gate we are speeding along on a dangerous boar's hunt with the Lord's nephew Hugo. We share in the romantic exchanges of the self-conscious blacksmith's daughter Taggot, and hear the fretting over an arranged marriage done in two voices by the glass blower's daughters. We meet outspoken Nelly the sniggler (eel-catcher), who was too willful to drown in a bucket of water as a baby. We hear the laments of Lowdy, the Varlet's child, about the infestation of fleas. Edgar, the falconer's son, faces dastardly punishment for freeing a bird, while young Thomas, the doctor's son, learns the tricks of his imperfect trade. We feel pangs of Jack the Half-Wit, as he endures the slings and arrows of callous neighbors. My favorite of all is the poem of Otho, the Miller's son,"Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,/ And the the wheel goes on forever. Every man's a cheater, and so every man is fed,/For we feed upon each other,/when we seek our daily bread." The author perfectly captures the rough edges of Medieval times, the dour struggle for survival, but most of all the beating hearts of the characters, channeled from across the span of time, with desires and delights and disappointments that, like the miller's son suggests, go on forever.

Byrd based his illustrations on a manuscript from 1255, opening with a map that can be used by young readers to hunt-and-find favorite characters and see where they live in relation to one another. The decorative style is extremely authentic and as delightful as looking through a kaleidoscope. With unobtrusive sidelines explaining unfamiliar vocabulary and thoughtfully dispersed compositions offering background knowledge about subjects such as "The Crusades," "Medieval pilgrimage," "Jews in Medieval society," "The Three-Field System," "Towns and Freedom," there is so much a child can learn within these pages, and oh so painlessly. This is a beautiful book, a poignant book and an engaging one; when is the last time you have looked forward to the next moment you will have to return to a book of poetry they way you have with an exciting novel? Proving that she can write outstanding books in many genres for children, Schlitz in short order has joined the ranks of Laurie Halse Anderson and Sue Stauffacher. A hybrid of many literary forms, this book is deserving the high honor of a Newbery, but barring that, it certainly wins the Time Machine award of the year. (11 and up)

Also of interest:
The Middle Ages: why read it when you can live it? Try the attractive activity guide DAYS OF KNIGHTS AND DAMSELS by Laurie Carlson (Chicago review Press) and KNIGHTS AND CASTLES: 50 HANDS-ON ACTIVITIES TO EXPERIENCE THE MIDDLE AGES by Avery Hart, illustrated by Michael Kline (Kaleidoscope Kids).
Kids can glean a little more historical inspiration and background knowledge from these oldies but goodies:
A MEDIEVAL FEAST by Aliki (HarperTrophy)
HOW WOULD YOU SURVIVE IN THE MIDDLE AGES? by Fiona McDonald and David Salariya, illustrated by Mark Peppe (Franklin Watts)

MERLIN AND THE MAKING OF THE KING by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House)
BEOWULF is some scary stuff retold by Michael Morpugo, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Candlewick)
CASTLE DIARY: THE JOURNAL OF TOBIAS BURGESS by Richard Platt, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Candlewick)
CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman (HarperTrophy) Yes, a novel, but I can't resist reminding you to read Cushman's work for a unique and worthwhile Medieval female's point of view! Another good author along these lines is Carolyn Meyer; older children can check out MARY, BLOODY MARY, full of more intrigue than a middle school!
CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALES by Marcia Williams (Walker) All the earthy humor and goodwill of the merry classic is captured in colorful comic strip form. Where oh where was this when I was in high school? Check out all of Marcia William's colorful takes on classics, from The Iliad to Shakespeare to Dickens.

Fare thee well, gentle readers!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're back to blogging regularly. I almost took you off my bookmark bar, but I just couldn't bear to.

Thank you.

MotherReader said...

Oh, good timing on this review. Top of the page as the book wins the Newbery. Nice.


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