Posts Tagged ‘medieval history’

What is like a summer evening?

The luxurious length of daylight, the satisfying, sun-kissed fatigue after a day of bumbling about out-of-doors, barefoot-and-happy kids wafting an aroma of chlorine, sunscreen, and popsicles. All of it breathes magic into bedtime story hour. These gems will do just fine.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World, written by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
originally published in 2005; reissued in 2017 by Candlewick Press

One of my small peeves is the preponderance of plots in kids’ books that go something like this: child is quiet and likes solitude; child meets loud, friendly sort; child realizes that life is ever so much sweeter when constantly surrounded by friends. Heaven knows friends are treasures and no man is an island, yada yada yada. But there seems to be such an undervaluing of a healthy contentment in keeping one’s own company.

Enter this gem, a combination of fantasy and social commentary that applauds serenity, untrammeled quietude, and the simple life, and does it with the magic and spectacle of Willy Wonka. Have you met any book like this before? I think not.

In the beginning, this entirely-stable, self-reliant young boy lives by himself at the end of the world. He spends his days inventively, messing about with fossils and treasure maps, drinking in the sound of the wind and the great “chuckling beasts” who growl outside his snug shack with “voices like plumbing.” Life is grand. Until one odd, bespectacled fellow comes along — Mr. Shimmer by name — promising to improve the place, drag in cartloads of friends, produce a land of “fun all the time.”

What does life look like when solemn silences are banned in favor of “nothing but laughter”?

This is a vibrant, meaningful story, illustrated with fantastical colors and perceptiveness by Kevin Hawkes. I’m confident that any true introvert will love it, as well as all who appreciate natural spaces and a dash of loneliness. Great read for ages 4 and up.

Blue Sky White Stars, written by Sarvinder Naberhaus, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
published in 2017 by Dial Books for Young Readers

I wish I could have reviewed this in time for your Fourth of July celebrations, but this is a spectacular book for any time. It’s a phenomenal meditation on the meaning of our flag and the meaning of America.

Phrases of Americana — Stand Proud, Old Glory, All American — are represented by two different images on mirroring pages reflecting two ways of thinking about these stirring words.

Nelson’s paintings are stunning, as always, and his treatment of these thought-provoking ideas immerses us in the beauty of the land, the strength of our diversity, and the honorable elements of our history. What rockets the significance of the book even higher is the fact that author Sarvinder Naberhaus is an immigrant from Punjab to Iowa and artist Kadir Nelson is an African-American. I am astonished by the work they have created together. Notes from both with their thoughts on this book are included.

Whether you are a fervent patriot, or perhaps an American Vet, or you feel a bit jaded and weary just now, I am telling you — this book will make your heart glow with a bit more hope and a bit more brotherhood. Ages 3 through adult.

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry, written by Danna Smith, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
published in 2017 by Candlewick Press

Enter the world of castles and keeps, where one young girl accompanies her father as he trains his goshawk.

Learn about preferred perches, feathered hawks’ hoods, and the exhilarating dive of a hawk when it spots its prey. Discover the use of bells, gauntlets, lures, and the mews. And be swept into the middle ages via Bagram Ibatoulline’s evocative paintings. It’s a beautiful, fascinating trip into history.

The bulk of this story is told in brief, rhyming verses, easily accessible to children as young as 2 or 3. Short, more in-depth explanations are added to each page pitched for children ages 4 or 5 and up. And a lengthy Author’s Note goes into even more detail for middle-grade through adult readers. So you see, this book is smartly adapted to a wide age range.

Little Blue Chair, written by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper
published in 2017 by Tundra Books

I love this clever, unassuming story demonstrating the interconnectedness of our world and the serendipitous events that sometimes come about because of that.

It all starts with Boo and his favorite little blue chair. It’s his prize possession. Just right for sitting on while munching a peanut butter sandwich, parking in the garden for a flowery reading nook, hanging a blanket over for a secret cave. Just an all around great little chair.

When Boo outgrows it, the chair finds a new home with a sweet, grey-haired lady who uses it for a plant stand. When the plant outgrows that little blue chair, its off to yet another home. And another.

You can’t imagine the journeys of this small chair, the far-flung locations and different owners it encounters. Until it comes full circle, straight back to Boo. How does that happen? What’s the chair’s story? Read this soft-spoken account and prepare to be dazzled. Surprisingly comforting and heart-warming for ages 2 and up. Madeline Kloepper’s illustration work is the bees knees. Bit of a Carson Ellis vibe. I can’t wait to see more from her!

Midnight at the Zoo, written and illustrated by Faye Hanson
first US edition 2017 by Templar Publishing

Max and Mia are two irrepressibly curious children — and that is one great quality!

Today they’re on a class trip to the zoo. The busload of their squirrelly classmates descends in raucous abandon, careening down pathways, goggling for glimpses of lemurs and flamingos, meerkats and lions. But! Not a whisker do they see. I don’t wonder!

Max and Mia, meanwhile, take things at their own pace. Which is: slower, quieter, more observant, curiouser, if you will. Which means: they are inadvertently left behind for Quite the Night at the zoo!

Fantastical events galore are in store for these two marching-to-the-beat-of-their-own-drum kiddos. Readers will love spotting the shy animals hiding from the brouhaha, and adore the treats in store for Max and Mia. Pizzazz on tap, for ages 3 and up.

How Long is a Whale? written and illustrated by Alison Limentani
first published in North America in 2017 by Boxer Books

Following up on her smart book, How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh, here is veterinarian-turned-illustrator Alison Limentani’s next winner, all set for curious young minds!

This time we’re exploring the lengths of animals, using other animals as our measuring devices. Starting with 10 sea otters who all together are as long as 9 yellowfin tuna, we swim our way through captivating undersea worlds until it’s time to size up the biggest granddaddy of ’em all, the Blue Whale.

He needs a super-duper gate-fold page to convey his entire incredible size! It’s awfully exciting!

Bold, beautiful prints with just the facts, ma’am. That’s the recipe for a book that’ll rivet the attentions of kids as young as 2, pique their curiosities, and spark their imaginations. How many squirrels long is your dog? How many bananas long is your bed? Endless possibilities ūüôā


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the trumpeter of krakow cover imageThe Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly
published in 1928 by Simon & Schuster


Medieval Poland.
Mysterious jewels.

That’s the story of The Trumpeter of Krakow in ¬†a nutshell.

Eric Kelly won the Newbery Medal for it in 1929 and my kids rate it high on the list of books they loved at around age 12.

Joseph Charnetski, 15 years old,¬†has fled with his family to Krakow, Poland, after Tatars attacked and pillaged their Ukrainian home. The year is 1461. medieval KrakowJoseph is not aware that hidden in the family’s luggage is the Great Tarnov Crystal, a stone which the Charnetski family has sworn to protect with their lives. So far, they’ve guarded it for 200 years.

When they arrive in Krakow, the Charnetskis find shelter in the home of an alchemist. They change their name and take every precaution from being Arkenstonediscovered. It’s clear that dangerous men are pursuing the stone, and are willing to risk anything to get it.

sounding the heynalA key plot element is the legend of the trumpeter of Krakow which stems from events in the 1200s. At that time, in a tower in one of Krakow’s churches, ¬†a watchman was always posted, ready to alert the people of invaders by blowing his trumpet. One night he began to sound the alarm. Enemy archers shot at him, but he continued playing until his throat was pierced. At that, his note was abruptly silenced, but the alarm had been enough. Krakow was saved. The city still honors his memory by trumpeting a hymn called The Hejnal from the tower every hour, ending the tune suddenly on a high note. You’ll have to read the book to see how this tradition impacts young Joseph as the Charnetskis strive to protect their treasure.

Because this book was written in the 20’s, the language is more formal, and Eric Kelly uses a stiff vocabulary. His descriptions of medieval Poland are rich, but his characters, especially the female characters, are a little dated. medieval alchemistNevertheless, it’s an exciting adventure story, and a lot of Dark Arts, creepy guys, and shady alchemy make it quite suspenseful.

My own kids listened to this on CD, and I think it would make a better read-aloud for many as the reading level is difficult for the age group who will enjoy it. That’s about ages 10-15 I’d guess. Give it a whirl with stout readers or good listeners.


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sigurd and his brave companions cover imageSigurd and His Brave Companions, by Sigrid Undset, illustrated by Gunvor Bull Teilman

From the thicket came the sound of snorting and grunting. Among the willows a host of bodies moved ‚Äď grey, black, whitish and pink. The pigs from Draumtorp¬† had been let loose here for the summer‚Ķmother sows caked with mud, young, lean animals, and tiny pink piglets, and even the old boar who was so old, the cook said she was sure his fat must be green and rancid with age‚Ķ

‚ÄúAt them,‚ÄĚ Sigurd cried out. ‚ÄúLet them have it,‚ÄĚ and snatching a dry branch from the ground, he charged the herd of pigs, roaring at the top of his voice, and Ivar and Helge roared too as they picked up branches and joined in the chase.norwegian summer farm from smithsonian journeys

It was all the more thrilling, because it was not without danger; the old boar was mean, and his tusks were terrible. But the whole herd of swine turned tail and crashed through the underbrush, whining and squealing, and so the boys roared still louder and pursued, until they came to the broadest and deepest arm of the brook. The pigs tore through the muddy water, making a terrific splashing and churning, and the boys turned back, laughing and very much elated. They had won a great victory over Koll Kroppinbak and Oskebuska.

Sigurd Jonsson, age 11, and his friends Ivar, 10, and Helge, 7, have invented a marvelous game of make-believe, taking on the roles of the old Norwegian hero Vilmund Vidutan, and his companions Gujamar –son of the king of Bohemia — and a knight named norway-girl-spinning-in-a-saeter from antiquaprintgallery dot comCarthage.¬†¬†Life on their farms in medieval Norway provides plenty of wild spaces to clash makeshift swords and rout their enemies, unwittingly played by a herd of pigs.

One day, however, their make-believe takes a bad turn. The enraged boar charges little Helge, and the only way Sigurd can prevent mortal injury is to kill the boar. One foolish choice leads to another, and rather than face punishment, the three boys run away into the foothills, taking shelter in a crude mountain hut.

Utterly fatigued, remorseful, famished, and frightened, the boys drift to sleep, when, in the pitch blackness a loud crash sets their spines to tingling! A strange man, terribly wounded and on the point of death, enters the hut and collapses. Caked in muck and matted blood, he is nevertheless richly dressed and nobly armed.

Who is this stranger? What arduous errand does he send Sigurd on? Can the three boys redeem themselves from their mischief with the swine herd?

 Sigrid Undset, the 1928 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, author of the magnificent Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, wrote this short, exciting novel for children. Who knew?! I am thrilled that the University of Minnesota press recently reprinted this work, first published in 1943.

No one captures the spirit of medieval Norway like Undset. This book offers an enthralling journey into that world, and could be

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

read aloud to capable listeners ages 9 or 10 and up, or read independently at 11 or 12.  Set in the year 1255, we find religious rites and farming practices, clothing, arms and foods, history and superstitions, mountain landscapes, monasteries, and so much more, spliced and squinched skillfully into the storyline.

¬†Excellent story, only about 140 pages long. It’s a bit tricky to follow some of the genealogy that‚Äôs included, but making a sketch might help, and truly, it’s not absolutely essential to enjoying the story. Follow this up with a longer novel, Rolf and the Viking Bow, for another masterful medieval Scandinavian setting.¬†

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from the good mountain cover image rumfordFrom the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World, written and illustrated by James Rumford

Take bundles of old rags, beaten to a pulp;
the skins of goats, scraped and soaked;
flattened gold, thin as grass;
flax seed oil and soot,
molded lead and sawn oak.

Put them together, and what do you get?

It’s not some kind of sorcerer’s brew, but a list of the raw materials ¬†Johannes Gutenberg used to create one of the most earthshaking, history-shaping, objects of all time: a printedfrom the good mountain illustration2 rumford book.

Gutenberg accomplished this In Mainz, Germany, around the year 1450. His revolutionary invention changed forever the possibilities of sharing ideas with masses of people around the world and across time. 

James Rumford’s book is a fascinating introduction to Gutenberg’s printing press. ¬†Rumford leads us along a riddlesome journey, seeking to find out from the good mountain illustration rumfordwhat this mysterious thing was that required such an odd list of ingredients.

Each two-page spread describes clearly, succinctly, vividly, in word and illustration, one process in the multi-step development of a printed book: how the paper was made, the leather, the gold leaf. Because the end goal of a book is always cloaked in secrecy, these discoveries entice us to want to know more and more. What could all of this be leading to?! By the time the book is revealed in the end, it really feels as miraculous as it should.

Rumford’s illustrations are done in pen and ink, painted with watercolor and gouache, and inspired by illuminated manuscripts. from the good mountain illustration3 rumfordBesides being gorgeous and providing an authentic Medieval atmosphere, if you take the time to look carefully you will see each tiny step in each process he describes. When he is telling us about making ink, we can see them gathering seeds, crushing them in a press, boiling the oil, burning pine pitch, scraping out soot, grinding oil and soot together. Incredible detail, gorgeous rich colors, and all the clothing, architecture, tools, and furnishings of 1450s Germany.

Besides all this, we are given glimpses of Gutenberg’s manuscripts, a significant epilogue with gutenberg biblemore information on Gutenberg and the history of printing, and many tips on how to search for more information about the techniques and materials mentioned in the book.

Published in 2012, this is an excellent book for ages 8 or 9 and older, packing an incredible amount of information into a beautiful, accessible form.


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Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray, illustrated by Robert Lawson

“My faith,” said Adam, “look at the road.”

It stretched ahead of them across a long, level field and up a hill so far away that the men and horses on it looked like chessmen.  For the first time since they had started, Adam really knew that he was sitting behind Roger on a great war horse, with Nick at his heels and the world before him.

“The Romans made this road, hundreds and hundreds of years ago,” said Roger. “It will be here hundreds and hundreds of years after we’re gone…A road’s a kind of holy thing…That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. ¬†It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. ¬†It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. ¬†And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

Adam Quartermayne, eleven years old, is on the road with his minstrel father, Roger. ¬†The year is 1294. ¬†Roger is an exceptional minstrel, trained in the latest romantic ballads from France, and there’s no place Adam would rather be than proudly journeying with him beneath the open sky, accompanied by his beloved spaniel, Nick. ¬†Presently, they’re on their way to London with Roger’s wealthy patron.

Troubles begin falling like rain, however, beginning with the loss of Roger’s fine horse, Bayard, and the theft of Adam’s dog. ¬†Quickly, Adam finds himself alone, separated from his father when he pursues Nick, encountering all varieties of fellow-travelers and meeting up with one adventure after another. ¬†The road becomes more than a lark for Adam; it becomes his proving-ground, as he perseveres through many difficulties with courage and honesty and steadfastness. ¬†When he is finally reunited with his father, his new-found maturity is apparent, and they happily take up their minstrels’ life, together again, on the road.

Elizabeth Gray won the Newbery Medal for this superb historical fiction in 1943.  Her ability to weave myriads of colorful, medieval details into an engrossing quest story, is hard to match.  Adam is an extremely likable character.  His love for his dog, Nick, completely endears this story to all of us fellow dog-lovers.  Add to this a fascinating depiction of minstrelsy, nobility, medieval fairs, inns, abbeys, and much, much more, and you have one of the best Newbery titles out there.

Robert Lawson’s extraordinary ink drawings of the scenes and people of 13th-century England are beautiful, and very helpful in picturing the countryside and clothing, architecture and implements of the time. ¬†This makes a great read-aloud for ages 7 and up, yet is riveting for adults as well with its historical detail and Gray’s smooth, perfectly-cadenced writing. ¬†Highly recommended!

Here’s the Amazon link: ¬†Adam of the Road (Puffin Modern Classics)

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The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

This is the story of an incredible, medieval, Jewish man who not only traipsed his way for fourteen years across dangerous, little known worlds, but lived to tell about it. 

The town of Tudela is in northern Spain, and from this town Benjamin set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with a desire to see the lands he knew of from his Hebrew Scriptures.¬† Traveling by barge, foot, wagon and ship, camel and donkey, Benjamin saw Roman ruins and Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, met Assassins and Crusaders, witnessed Muslim festivals in Baghdad and pearl fishermen in the Persian Gulf, and was one of the first Europeans to come back with news of a far-off, mysterious land called China.

Uri Shulevitz has recorded Benjamin’s journey in a brilliant, storytelling format full of color and dialogue, narrow escapes and exotic discoveries.¬† Delightful, appealing, colorful illustrations dominate the pages, which also contain brief historical notes¬†to augment our understanding of the era and cultures in which this journey took place.¬† Fabulous story!

Marco Polo, written and illustrated by Demi

This is the one¬†journey in today’s blog you’ve assuredly heard about —¬† Marco Polo’s journey with his father and uncle, beginning in 1271 from Venice, Italy, and returning in 1295.¬† In his lengthier, fabulous biography of Polo, Russell Freedman writes, “If you were to retrace Marco Polo’s footsteps today, you would have to travel 33,000 miles, through 17 countries and 8 war zones and get 20 visas.”¬† Certainly the number of war zones has only increased since he wrote that.

Prolific author/illustrator Demi has produced a work of art in this account of¬†Polo’s trek.¬† With so much information to choose from, Demi has chosen nice little nuggets for a vivid but fairly short version of Polo’s long years journeying, reserving plenty of space to describe his incredible years working for the Kublai Khan.¬†

Her illustrations are gorgeous, detailed paintings worked in Chinese inks with abundant gold overlays.  In addition, she has used Chinese and Indian embroidery pieces, and intricate Italian, Arabian and Persian silks, to create borders and frames and textiles which exude Eastern beauty and elegance.  The pages have a grasscloth look to them, so that the whole book feels like an antique volume.  A superb golden, decorated map of the entire journey to pore over is included.   Great introduction to Marco Polo.

Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354, written, illustrated, and illuminated by James Rumford

Ibn Battuta was a Muslim man, born in Tangier, Morocco in 1304, who set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca and wound up spending almost half his life traveling around the then-known world, leaving behind a written account of his amazing 75,000 mile journey.

From Morocco he meandered all across North Africa to Egypt, then into Arabia, along the coast of Africa, across the snowy steppes of Asia and through steamy cities of India, to Indonesia and China, finally winding his way back to Morocco 30 years later.  Along the way he encountered sultans and bandits, rhinos and monsoons.  He traveled by camel, by foot, by ship.  He returned with an unheard of wealth of knowledge of the world, its places and peoples.

Rumford’s book is like a present — his words chosen carefully, loaded with juicy, spicy detail and no extra baggage; his watercolors gorgeous images of exotic lands and people amply accented with gleaming gold; his Arabic calligraphy elegant; his graphic design, with its pathway of narration winding through the journal entries, delightful.¬†A helpful map, some direct quotes from ancient¬†Eastern writers, and a glossary round out the well-thought-out ingredients in this beautiful book.

A Giraffe Goes to Paris, by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris, illustrated by Jon Cannell

Born in Egypt in 1824, Belle the Giraffe was given as a gift by the pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to the king of France, Charles X.  At the time, no one in France had ever seen a giraffe.  This made Belle quite a magnificent present!  But, she was not brought by the UPS truck. 

Belle journeyed with her caretaker, Atir, up the Nile, and across the Mediterranean to Marseille, and then commenced a 500-mile walk to Paris.  The journey required special giraffe clothes, a special giraffe Mobile Dairy Farm, special giraffe umbrellas and soldiers.  It took the retinue past beautiful French countryside, past throngs of curious, singing Frenchmen, and directly to the king himself.  It caused an incredible commotion across France, with hairdos and poems, pianos and cookies all fashioned after the new Giraffe Look.

This lighthearted, whimsical account of Belle, her journey, and her life in Paris, is illustrated in mixed media — cheery, charming, colorful watercolors mix with photos of artifacts for a very upbeat presentation.¬† Great fun!

Once Upon a Full Moon, written and illustrated by Elizabeth Quan

When Elizabeth was a young girl in the 1920s, her family took a long, long journey to visit her grandmother in China.¬† This is her story of that journey.¬† All the excitement of getting ready — haircuts, packing, new dresses.¬† And all the thousands of miles, across the wild landscapes of Canada by train, across the vast ocean by ship, short stopovers in Japan and Hong Kong, then by rickshaw and ferry, steam engine and foot, until finally they arrive at the home where Papa was born.¬† A small village tucked among rice fields.¬† An old, old lady dressed in silk robes with tiny bound feet.¬† And the same moon shining above them that shone into Elizabeth’s bedroom far away in Toronto.

Quan gives us a beautiful, gentle account of this journey, absolutely tingling with detail.¬† You can taste, hear, smell, feel, see all that she experienced along the way.¬† Her lovely, vivid watercolor pictures add life and really help us see the many sights of this 1920s world, from the exotic Cantonese Opera players on Canada’s West Coast, to the quiet, green Chinese countryside, Japanese kimonos, and railway trestles crossing rugged mountain gorges.¬† An exceptional look at an ordinary family on an extraordinary excursion.

Coming tomorrow…the incredible journey of one of the Lost Boys of Southern Sudan in Fiction Favorites.¬† Don’t miss it!

Here are Amazon links to these books:
The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century
Marco Polo
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354
A Giraffe Goes to Paris
Once Upon a Full Moon

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