Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.


I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.

11 Responses to “Children’s books, briefly noted”

  1. Christina Says:

    I had the Door in the Wall when I was a child and I loved it. Read it many times over and I think it deeply formed my imagination with regards to the Middle Ages and likely influenced my decision to complete a degree on the topic.

  2. Christina Says:

    also found an excellent historical series for children on different aspects of medieval society at the library and Isabel Cochelin and Marc Cels from U of T are contributors.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Christina, it was you who recommended The Door in the Wall to me; thanks! I do usually remember such things, even if it takes me years to follow-up.

    I’d be interested in knowing more about that historical series. A quick search didn’t turn up anything, but if you know more and can share, I’d appreciate it.

  4. Janet Says:

    There are some very good books by a woman named Cynthia Harnett about the Middle Ages. The protagonist is usually a boy about 12. The stories are good and there are pen and ink drawings of the things they are talking about in the story so you can learn what they are, but they come across as illustrations, not preachy things.

    I love The Door in the Wall and I remember really liking Adam of the Road, but have no memory whatsoever of the story.


  5. Christina Says:

    Craig, you have a better memory than I! I always have ideas but no memory of them later….
    One of the books in the series I mentioned is this one:

    The other is here:


  6. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for those suggestions, both of you. Christina, I found both of those books at the public library, so I’ve requested them. Janet, I’ve not heard of Cynthia Harnett before, but the library has two of her medieval novels; I’ve requested those too, just to have a look at them. They seem to be out of print.

    • Janet Says:

      Yes, they are probably out of print. I bought mine on clearance–but they are good. I hope they are still in the library when your kids are old enough for them.


  7. kathyB Says:

    A bit too old for your kids yet, and a bit too late a time period, but one of my favourite children’s novels of all time is “Cue for Treason” by Geoffrey Trease. Takes place in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare is a minor character in the book. Note: spoiler alert! don’t read the wikipedia article, unless you want to know the ending in advance.

  8. cburrell Says:

    It looks like those books have been in the library since the 1960s, Janet; I expect they’ll still be there in 10 years. Although I complain about living in Toronto, the city does have a fantastic network of public libraries. Rare is the book they don’t have somewhere.

    Thanks for that recommendation, Kathy. I love reading books about that period, so it’s perfect for me. I’ve requested it from the library too. I do believe I have requested too many books at once!

  9. kathyB Says:

    I think the limit you can take out is 100 books at a time, so you are probably safe 🙂

  10. cburrell Says:

    100 books! I think we’ve got about 20 out at the moment, but that still leaves plenty of room.

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