Medieval Tales for Kids

I’m currently reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, and it has me happily immersed in the stark but beautiful world of 14th-century Norway. Though this dense tome is decidedly not for children, it got me thinking about what medieval tales I would like to share with young readers. Spanning about 1,000 years, the middle ages were a mystifying time of religious expansion, war and famine, and incredible art and literature. It is no wonder that there are so many books that use medieval times as a backdrop, especially as we consider how, in many ways, things have not changed as much as we might think.

whitecatmonkcollage.jpegThe White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith

The White Cat and the Monk is based on the 9th-century Old Irish poem “Pangur Bán” . This beautiful graphic novel-esqe picture book evokes a filmic quality as it follows a monk on his simple but meaningful purpose–reading and learning. The monk juxtaposes his pursuit of knowledge with his cat’s instinctual mouse-hunting–both require concentration, both so necessary. Sydney Smith is one of my all-time favorite illustrators–with simple, elegant lines, he summons a mood that reaches right out to the reader. Here, he brings a quiet, contemplative, yet joyful atmosphere that works perfectly with the poem. In an age of constant distraction and smartphones glued to faces, this book is a breath of fresh air. Ages 4 & up.

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The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or, The Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly

This middle grade novel is a clever, kid-friendly spin on The Canterbury Tales–in France in 1242, travelers converge on an inn to tell the tale of three children–one child on a mission from the monastery he serves, one a Jewish boy fleeing violence and devastation in his village, and one a peasant girl whose visions have gotten her in trouble at home. And they are accompanied by the girl’s dog, who rose from the dead. As each traveller tells a different part of the story, sometimes contradicting one another, Gidwitz weaves together a tale rich, heartfelt, and hilarious. Aly’s illuminations gorgeously (and humorously) evoke medieval texts, and often tell parts of the story that are left untold by the narrators. If that’s not enough to draw you in? There’s a lactose-intolerant, farting dragon. Ages 9 & up.

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passiondolssacover.jpgThe Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

This young adult (but readily adult crossover) novel is also set in medieval France focuses on Dolssa, a young woman whose lover is of the ethereal, holy variety and who has a gift for communicating with the divine. This incited the jealousy of a young monk who brands her heretic and attempts to burn her at the stake. She escapes, and ends up colliding into the world of matchmaker Botille and her sisters, forever changing their lives. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, this tale is immersive, peppered with phrases from the regional languages spoken at the time and full of such well-developed characters you’ll feel like you’ve lived a little inside each of them after reading. Ages 12 & up.

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BookPair: Fresh, Feminist Fairy Tales

I have a particular love for fairy tales–the way they reveal truths in the real world, the way they can be retold and rewritten to uncover new truths (see: Angela Carter, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link): this is a particular magic that fairy tales hold.

Below are two new middle grade books (one due out this summer; one in the fall) that are doing fabulous things with the fairy tale genre for young readers–giving them fresh, feminist voices that are empowering, enriching reads for any reader!


The Girl Who Drank the Moon

by Kelly Barnhill

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Once upon a time, there was a town. Over the town hung a heavy, pungent sorrow. Within the town were a people who sacrificed their youngest child each year to a supposed witch who would keep the town safe from the dangerous woods without in exchange. One year, as fate would have it, that child was Luna. Luna was a special girl–within her was a lineage of powerful magic that she spent most of her life unaware of. She was indeed taken by a witch, but that story is not what it might seem, nor is the witch what she might seem, or is anyone, really, what they might seem.

So much of Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon is not what it might seem, in the best possible way. Her deliciously deft prose is as light and delicate as starlight yet as deep with magic as moonlight. She weaves her unique fairy tale with a sturdily-built world, strange yet beautifully-rendered characters, and plot twists that will leave even the most clever of readers breathless. The story is firmly fantasy, but its heart beats with a very real longing for family, love, and hope. This book is a must-read for fans of J.A. White’s The Thickety and Margi Preus’ West of the Moon.

Available August 9th from Algonguin Young Readers!

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When the Sea Turned to Silver

by Grace Lin

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“To be in prison with the Storyteller is to not be in a prison at all.”

In Lin’s newest addition to her beautiful series based on ancient Chinese folklore, Pinmei’s grandmother, a celebrated storyteller, is kidnapped by the power-hungry emperor. He demands the Luminous Stone That Lights the Night in exchange for her safe return. Little Pinmei, scared and painfully shy, goes off in search of this stone with the help of her friend Yishan. Along the way she encounters many unexpected friends (and discovers many unexpected things about her friends), and finds her voice and and strength through stories.

Stories have power–they give a voice to the silenced, and they reveal injustices committed by those in control.  When the Sea Turned to Silver is at its heart a celebration of storytellers and their ability to change the world. Beautifully complex characters (I love how Pinmei feels pangs of pity even for terrible emperor) and enchanting tales woven throughout give the book wings. There is so much to ponder here about the world we live in and how we can use our voices to speak up to authority, to change narratives, to reveal the truth.

Available October 4th from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

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Good Deeds, Good Friends

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If only we could all look at the world the way Kate DiCamillo does–she finds beauty and wonder in even the minutest and mundane of details, and her books resonate with readers for this very reason. I’m so, so glad that Raymie Nightingale, her latest middle grade novel, is out in the world for others to hold and read and love.


My Review

Friendship, like bravery, can make its appearance at the most unexpected times. Kate DiCamillo’s new yarn is one to treasure–light and jocular on the surface, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE belies a deeper, truer, more aching heart than at first it might seem, beating its broken rhythm with absent parents, poverty, and loss. Raymie, our spunky heroine, finds friendship among two girls who are battling the familiar childhood foes of loneliness and powerlessness. These “Three Rancheros” together light the way through their individual struggles, their solidarity aglow like Florence Nightingale’s lamp or Mrs. Sylvester’s sunlit jar of candy corn, rescuing each other from the darkness. DiCamillo has a magic way of noticing all the little nuances who make us what we are, creating characters that are equal parts weird and relatable, and her skillful intertwinement of humorous and heavy weaves pure poetry out of the ordinary. This book is one huge good deed destined to become a classic.

Out now!

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More Raving about Raymie

Check out Matthew Winner’s wonderful conversation with Kate DiCamillo on his All The Wonders Podcast! It’s 38 minutes that I guarantee will improve your day.

I like that NPR spotlights children’s literature so often–and they interviewed Kate DiCamillo a couple of days ago on All Things Considered. “It takes a lot of bravery to be kind,” indeed.

Marvelous March Middle Grade

Recently, I have been hooked on wonderfully dark, twisty tales of unexpected magic and intrigue featuring heroines who are strong, uniquely bright, and wholly inspiring. These are perfect, empowering reads for Women’s History Month (or ANY month).

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The Keepers #2: The Harp and the Ravenvine

A fantastic follow-up to a near-perfect book–so good, in fact, that I loved it more than the first–how is that even possible? In The Harp and the Ravenvine we follow more (dangerous) adventures of Keepers Horace and Chloe, and we meet a new Keeper, April, whose Tan’ji holds a most spectacular power, even as it draws danger closer to the Warren and the rest of the Keepers. Sanders uses brilliant pacing and some of the strongest character building (and most delightfully terrible villains) I’ve met in a novel to masterfully construct a world where bright children form bonds with singular objects that are sought after (and fought for) by an ancient, merciless people.
This series is perfect for readers who love the depth and detail of Harry Potter and the off-kilter, dark fantasy of Neil Gaiman.

Ages 10 & up.

Out now!

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♀ Meet the Heroines: Chloe and April

I loved Chloe from the first moment she entered the first Keepers novel, The Box and the Dragonfly. She’s smart, witty, sarcastic, and braver than most superheroes. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends and family, and though she can be rough around the edges, she genuinely cares for those she brings into her inner circle. And her Tan’ji (the word for objects the Keepers are bonded to)? A dragonfly charm, which allows her to become incorporeal. Pretty cool, right?

New to the Keepers, April is what the Wardens call an empath, or “a Keeper whose Tan’ji can read the minds of nonhuman animals.” This means she can see (or hear, feel, taste) the world like a dog, a raven, or even the tiniest of insects. What a beautiful, subtly powerful ability–to understand the world the way another being does. Her Tan’ji is the Ravenvine, a beautiful but damaged instrument. She follows the call of the missing piece to join forces with Horace, Chloe, and the rest of the Wardens to fight the terrible Riven and their allies.


 

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The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is a wonderfully spooky historical fantasy that will appeal to readers who love their stories cloaked in misty mystery and full of hidden passages and ghostly secrets. Fox’s skillfully builds tension as the chapters switch between the distant past and WWII-era present, twist and turn together, intertwining in a dance, revealing flashes of hints and clues to the puzzle that clever readers will relish putting together. Add in a protagonist who will warm your heart with her steadfast commitment to protect her family and friends, and an antagonist who will chill your core and haunt your dreams, and you have a fantastically eerie tale worthy of a place on the shelf next to Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Auxier’s The Night Gardener.

Ages 10 & up.

Out March 15th!

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♀ Meet the Heroine: Kat

Keep calm and carry on.” Not just the ubiquitous motivational poster (actually little-used during WWII), this phrase is a type of mantra for young Kat, who escapes the Blitz in London with her siblings to board in a Scottish castle that holds more secrets than doors to hide them behind. Not unlike Horace, the star of The Keepers series, Kat thinks scientifically and outright refuses to believe in magic–at first. A strong-minded, logical skeptic like Kat, however, does not let her disbelief blind her to the reality that something is very, very wrong at Rookskill Castle, and that something has quite a lot to do with Lady Eleanor, who rules over the castle with an iron fist. She knows that above all, she must keep her family together and make her father (a spy for MI6 overseas) proud.