Okay….so I had in my mind that Adam Gidwitz had been a second grade teacher before he wrote the GRIMM books, A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, and its two cousins, and I really wondered what a second grade teacher brought to the whole world of the mind of middle school readers. Reading his biography you learn he was not a model student in his early years and it took high school to get him to take this education thing a bit seriously. He went on to college in NYC, read a lot of Keats in England, and taught a lot of grades at St. Ann’s School in New York City. Then he and his wife went to France in 2012 where she studied monks and he ran into a story that really grabbed hold of him and wouldn’t let go.
I’m telling you all of this because perhaps like me, you would be a tad confused if I told you Adam Gidwitz of the Grimm world had gone on a Chaucerian journey and written a book for middle schoolers set in 1242. See…I knew you would need to know the background. Otherwise you’re like, 1242? Really? 1242?
Personally I love the middle ages. I have a feeling it was the time of one of my favorite earlier lives. But that doesn’t mean I think it would be any walk in the park to recommend a book set in 1242 to a middle schooler…especially a reluctant reader middle schooler.
You have to be intrepid in this librarian business. No shrinking violets here. So, I read the book on the plane. It has three children as the main characters accompanied by one ghostly greyhound. One has super strength, one gets visions and one can heal wounds. Ahhh…and what would an Adam Gidwitz story be without a farting dragon?
Part of the genius of this story is the mysterious narrator who sits in the Holy Cross Roads Inn listening to the story of the three children, Jeanne, Jacob and William, and their dog Gwenforte who are on a quest and considered dangerous enough that the King of France is at war with them. Want a little helping of power anyone?
A series of storytellers to include a nun who seems to know a great deal pass the story baton from one to the next to weave the tale chapter by chapter.
At the outset our three protagonists suffer great misfortune, loss of parentage and abandonment. It all begins with Jeanne. Jeanne has visions. Her own parents recognize she is different and struggle to protect her. It is Jeanne who finds Gwenforte, a white greyhoundwith a copper blaze, once her babysitter, who has now returned as a ghost to protect her. Word spreads about the dog and eventually a fear of pagan dog worship sends a troop of knights to Jeanne’s village to destroy the dog and take Jeanne. Their mission involves a dung heap and some brainless knights, a magnificent weaving of history, legend and gross out humor.
William is a son of sin, with a great lord father fighting Muslims in Spain and a Saracen mother from North Africa, giving him the coloring and hair of that land, brown skin and black hair. Raised in a monastery, William is a scholar. He discovers his own abilities on the day he hears his mother described as being a harlot. In that moment of rage William slams his hand down on a wooden bench and shatters it into thousands of splinters.
Jacob is the son of Jews who believe he is possessed. He is a gentle boy with an affinity for plants. One night people come and set fire to his home and the homes of others in his village. His parents tell him to run and hide. When the morning comes Jacob comes back to look for his family and fears they have been lost in the fire.
Each on his/her own journey the three children find their way to the inn and there they discover each other and become a team. Looking at each other they are astonished to find themselves so different from one another and yet together.
What lies ahead is danger and a quest. They are on the run from the King of France himself and they find a purpose, a mission that will lead them on to the isle of Mont Saint Michel.
Adam Gidwitz understands what he would have wanted in a story as a middle schooler. He would have needed some humor, some gross moments, some superpowers, legends, and above all a story with enough twists and turns to keep him engrossed.
This would make an amazing read aloud for any middle school teacher still allowed to read aloud to his or her students. It will capture all sorts of readers with its appeal. There is enough tradition to satisfy our readers who feel connected to the past and who love characters who choose adventure. There is enough mysticism and legend to thrill our readers who live with one foot in another dimension. There is enough history and political intrigue to hold our readers who thrive on knowledge and understanding how things work and the surprises, the action and the delightfully gross dung heaps, power and farting will provide the sense of visceral experience that our most reluctant readers demand.
This is one of a kind. Brilliant. Funny. Steeped in Medieval lore. Perhaps a bit of Chaucer for the new millenium.
384 pages Ages 10 and up 978-0525-426165
Recommended by Barb Langridge, abookandahug.com