Monday, January 14, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

This year's Newbery winner is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd.

It's a charming book. I love history, and I love footnotes and poetry, and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has all of these in great abundance. It's also got gorgeous (vaguely medieval looking) illustrations, including a wonderful map of the world of the unnamed manor, that includes all of the characters, their houses, fields, and even some activities and animals.

In high school (about twenty-five years ago in north-central Illinois), we had to read selections from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Those interlinked epitaphs or "poetic monologues" made quite an impression on me - I actually wanted to name my daughter Lucinda after one of my favorite Spoon River characters. Unfortunately Lucinda just doesn't go well with my husband's last name, or mine, so we went with a different (but still rather literary) girl's name.

Anyway, Schlitz's collection of "miniature plays", written for her students at the Park School in Baltimore (lucky students!), like Masters' epitaphs, provide intimate looks at people from very different social classes and temperaments. Masters' collection focused on a small town in Illinois; these stories come from a manor (a small town associated with a lord) in England in the year 1255. But both books have the same feel to me - they're basically gossipy stories that highlight deeper issues.

Part of the appeal of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (and the Spoon River Anthology) is how the different monologues reveal different aspects of the characters. In addition to each kid's own piece (Schlitz notes in her delightful foreword that she imagines the characters in GM!SW! as "between ten and fifteen years old", pg. ix), you also get several fascinating glimpses of how some of their peers - in age if not class - also see each other.

And in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, you also learn quite a bit about medieval history.

Schlitz really had me hooked in her foreword:
When I was a student, I had two ideas about history, and one of them was that history was about dead men who had done dull things. History was dates and governments and laws and war and money - and dead men. Always dead men.

But I also read historical novels. And I adored them. People in historical novels loved, fought, and struggled to survive. They died violently; they were beset with invaders and famine and plague. They wore splendid clothes or picturesque rags. They performed miracles of courage and strength just to get something to eat. It was from novels that I learned that history was the story of survival: even something that sounded boring, like crop rotation or inheritance law, might be a matter of life and death to a hungry peasant. Novels taught me that history is dramatic. I wanted my students to know that, too (pg. ix).
Happily, the rest of the book fulfilled the foreword's promise (not like here, where I ranted about just the opposite in The White Stag, which won in 1938).

I gathered that GM!SL! was a dark horse in the Newbery race this year when I talked to the librarians at my library this morning (they had to fetch the book from the office, where it was awaiting its Newbery sticker). I have to say I'm happy with this unexpected choice.


Amanda said...

Thanks so much for the great review, Sandy! We don't have the book (all we have is the Caldecott winner and the Pura Belpre illustration winner) so it is nice to get a preview.

Kathleen said...

Well I'll have to read it eventually since I'm going to read all the Newbery winners but I must admit it doesn't sound like a book I'll enjoy. I could be wrong of course.

Anonymous said...

I'm on the side that this book is quite deserving of the Newbery Medal. My heart was beating in the first monologue's boar hunt, and I was getting misty eyed as the lord's nephew left a gift for the not-so-princess-pretty blacksmith's daughter in the second monologue. And all that in less than 10 pages! A quick read at only 80 sparse pages (and therefore even more kid friendly), historically insightful, a vocabulary enricher, and a concise look at how being a kid wasn't always MP3's & XBox's! Great Book!

Anonymous said...

...oh, and let's not forget that the almighty Shakespeare himself wrote the vast majority of his greatest works as stage performances as well, which we all study as *literature* why SHOULDN'T a stage performance work not be considered for excellence in children's literature?