I’ve avoided this book for years. It was published in 2007 and won the Newbery in 2008, but it didn’t appeal to me. I like the history of the middle ages; it was one of my favorite courses in college. Still, I never picked this one up. Maybe it was the cover image. More likely, it’s because the book gives a series of short stories (and many in verse, which I don’t care for), not a single lengthy tale. But I’m still picking my way through all the Newbery winners, and as I looked over the ones I haven’t yet read, I figured now was as good a time as any to finally tackle this one. I was pleasantly surprised.
Written by a librarian with the intention that they be performed as soliloquies, these stories overlap. They are the voices of a shepherdess, a falconer’s son, a doctor’s son, an orphaned runaway, a ployboy, a blacksmith’s daughter, and many others, both peasant and noble. Performed (or read) together they create an entire medieval village, and they’re loaded, absolutely loaded, with medieval context. If you pick this one up, be prepared to face the Middle Ages squarely, with no gloss and no apologies. The smells, the fleas, the hunger, the high infant mortality rate, the likelihood that women would die in childbirth, the close proximity of livestock, a prevalence of the church, quack medicine, lack of freedom, squalor, corruption, greed, and death. It’s all in there. It will open the eyes of children raised in a modern society to what life used to be like. Yet despite their antiquated vocabulary (beautifully explained in stage directions at the side of each page) and hard lives, these characters are very like us, displaying many of our same dreams, vices, and hopes.
I wish I had picked this book up sooner. It would have been an excellent accompaniment to our Middle Ages social studies class a few years ago. I highly recommend it for classrooms or for those with a particular interest in medieval Europe. Several bonus pages between scripts give historical background on relevant topics such as the Crusades and farming methods. Well-researched and well-written, this one gets two thumbs up.