Tag Archives: Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

inquisitors-taleJeanne is a young peasant girl who sees visions that foretell the future with disturbing accuracy. She runs away when she is accused of worshipping the holy greyhound, Gwenforte, who was killed and has risen from the dead. She doesn’t worship the dog; she loves her. Jacob is a Jewish boy whose village was burned by Christian youths, and he is trying to find his parents. William is a gigantic young monk whose dark skin betrays the fact that his Crusading father impregnated a Muslim girl from Africa, then dumped his own son in a monastery. William’s temper makes it difficult for him to remain there, though, so he is being sent on a mission to bring some holy books to the abbot in Saint Denis. As these children travel through 13th century France, they find one another, form a bond, and set off on a mission to prevent a terrible book-burning. If their purpose is found out, they will be burned along with the books. Every new acquaintance could be a traitor or a protector. Sometimes, appearances can be deceiving.

Gidwitz felicitously structures this story much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of travelers is gathered at an inn, strangers to one another, but each one seems to hold a chapter of the children’s adventures, stories that they share like gossip as they eat their suppers and call for another pint of ale. But who is it who holds all these stories together? The reader does not find out until the tense and surprising conclusion. Illustrator Hatem Aly draws pictures and marginalia that resemble those found in medieval manuscripts, forming the capital letters at the beginning of each chapter and crawling up the edges of pages. Gidwitz wrote this story as he traveled through Europe with his wife, who is a medievalist, and his deep understanding of the age shows through in the details of life in the middle ages: not just the gilded life of the court that we usually see, but also the squalor of the peasants, and the rough power of the landlords, whose houses, though large, were cold and dirty, too.

Devout parents of any of the three major faiths represented may be uncomfortable with the twenty-first century attitude toward religion, as one character states that everyone is praying to the same god, just in different languages. However, in another section, Gidwitz tackles tremendous theological questions, such as the classic, “If God is all good, and God is all powerful, why do these terrible things happen?” He presents two decent and sincere responses from characters with very different perspectives, and he does so with honesty and respect. Similarly, Jews are shown as both the scholarly and gentle rabbis and the rapacious moneylenders that caused them to be expelled from Western Europe. Most of the common people are Christians by default, of course, and the church leaders are portrayed as mostly evil power-mongers, with notable exceptions. True faith is largely absent; rather, faith is in miracles and magical relics. Gidwitz provides an extremely informative author’s note at the end, giving a great deal of historical fact, as well as the backstory to the novel, which was propelled into being when he read a placard in a museum about the burning of 20,000 copies of the Talmud under King Louis IX. Librarians and other book-lovers will rejoice in the novel’s zeal for books.

The Inquisitor’s Tale is a highly original and absorbing story, as notable for its structure and setting as for the compelling plot and likable characters. Although it is written for upper middle grades through middle school, it does contain some mild swearing, including the medieval variety, which could be more unsettling to religious families than modern curse words. The concepts in this book are universal and important, and discussion with adults could help kids to glean even more meaning from the text. It’s covered with starred reviews, so expect some mentions when the awards are given out later this month.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Day of Dialog 2016: Up Close and Intense

Day of Dialog logo

My colleagues and I flew to Chicago to attend Book Expo America, a huge annual gathering of publishers, authors, booksellers, and, increasingly, librarians. BEA lasted three days, the first of which we spent at the Day of Dialog, presented by School Library Journal (for professionals serving youth) and Library Journal (for professionals serving adults). BEA has been in New York for a number of years, but this year was hosted in Chicago, just to give us a change of scene.

Day of Dialog is a wondrously concentrated dose of information tailored specifically toward librarians and teachers whose work it is to push books on kids. SLJ knows just what we need, and presents individual speakers, panels of authors who address trends and issues in current literature, and panels of publisher representatives who fill us in on the hottest upcoming titles by their respective authors. Except for lunch, the participants stay in one room and just soak it all up.

Richard PeckRichard Peck was our opening speaker. At 82, he is still as sharp and witty as ever, and his remarks applied his seasoned wisdom to the edgiest current topics. Nothing is off the table with Mr. Peck! Years ago, while I was in graduate school, I carpooled with a school librarian who was having a tough time with a class of rowdy fifth-grade boys. She asked me for a title that she could read to them, hoping to get them interested in books. I suggested Peck’s The Teacher’s Funeral. Although the humor was down-home, I thought boys would really appreciate it. A couple of weeks later, she thanked me profusely. She bubbled over with good news about her boys, marveling that you could hear a pin drop in her class now, unless the boys were roaring with laughter in all the right places, and that they couldn’t wait to get to her class to hear the next chapter. We felt much the same way on Wednesday, hanging on his every word. You can get a taste of his speech on YouTube here  and here. His latest book, The Best Man, comes out in September.

There were great discussions on the making of children’s nonfiction, particularly illustrated nonfiction guaranteed to entice young ones into learning. If I may recommend a few, don’t miss Will’s Words, by Jane Sutcliffe, who invites us to explore the words and phrases introduced into our language by the bard’s works, Some Writer!, by Melissa Sweet, a biography of E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame, and Around America to Win the Vote, by Mara Rockliff, one of many excellent books on women’s suffrage coming out in this 100th anniversary year.

MG topicThe middle grade author panel was worth the price of admission for me. Middle grade books are the ones that we remember fondly from childhood, and almost all of the great classics fall here, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Secret Garden. These new authors discussed the truth that we find in children’s literature and the sometimes overwhelming issues that children deal with, whether the adults in their lives try to shield them or not. Middle Grade PanelAdam Gidwitz described his new medieval novel, The Inquisitor’s Tale, which he researched while in Europe with his historian wife. Quite a leap from his Tale Dark and Grimm and Star Wars retellings! I am looking forward to this one. Jason Reynolds, author of As Brave as You (among others), held us spellbound as he mused on the themes that were common to all of us as we read stories of other cultures. As he said, stories are true when they explore the fundamental touchstones of life, such as family and the universal need to be loved. I had the privilege of hearing Jason again at the AAP Children’s Author Dinner that evening (see photo below) when he went into greater depth about his new book that explores a boy’s discovery that his grandfather, who has always been his hero, is totally blind. It is our response to life’s surprises that makes us grow bitter or grow into heroes ourselves. I have a feeling Jason will be a new favorite author for me.

Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird

During lunch, I was able to speak to Betsy Bird, purveyor of SLJ’s celebrated blog Fuse#8, about the fabulous Children’s Literary Salon that she had hosted a couple of weeks before. Presented with the topic “Death and Theology in Children’s Literature,” Nathan (N.D.) Wilson, of 100 Cupboards fame, and Jeanne Birdsall, author of the beloved “Penderwicks” series, discussed the Christian and post-Christian humanist points of view, respectively. SLJ has made this and other webcasts available here. I highly recommend this webcast, particularly for Christian teachers and parents, and for fans of C.S. Lewis who want to see the author lauded for his children’s and adult works. I confess that I watched it live in my family room, weeping and saying, “Yes! This is why we sacrifice for the children!”

YA PanelAfter lunch, Laini Taylor gave a wry and thoughtful speech about genre fiction, which I love, but which is often not valued as highly as realistic fiction. Her hot pink hair was also on display in the following panel of women writers of young adult fiction. Here’s a new statistic by Bowker: more than half of all YA fiction is read by adults!  I do know a lot of adults who read YA, but I thought my perspective might be skewed by my environment.

The day rounded out with a full panel of picture book authors and illustrators. I must admit that I was flagging by the middle of the afternoon, but certainly not because of the program. Another smashing success! Kudos to School Library Journal.

Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) Children’s Author Dinner was held at the opulent Palmer House Hotel that evening, and in addition to another brilliant panel of authors, I was surrounded by terrific children’s librarians from around the country. All kinds of shop talk went on while consuming a scrumptious meal accompanied by generous amounts of wine. After dinner, the authors spoke about their books, which included picture books, graphic novels, middle grade fiction, and young adult fiction.

One of the great advantages of attending events like Day of Dialog and the authors’ dinner is that I learn which books the publishers are featuring this season and next season, and I will be sure to order all of these titles, if I haven’t already! That is their point, of course, but it is also the point for me. As a selector, I have learned over the years that if a publisher is pushing a title, they think it deserves to do well, and, conversely, if they choose to market a title strongly, it will do well as a result! This helps me to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely and get the books that kids will love. All of this is in addition, of course, to being starstruck by meeting the authors of my favorite books—my rock stars! Truth be told, I only geeked out once, and that was on Friday, which will be another post!

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The image of the SLJ Day of Dialog logo was obtained from Google Images, as was the image of Betsy Bird. The other grainy, dreadful photos are my own. Apologies to the photogenic originals!

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