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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two excellent middle grades books set in the middle ages!

Pyle, Howard (1967 -- 1888) Otto of the Silver Hand  New York:  Dover

Okay, so when I was a little kid, I loved reading about knights.  Dragons were cool too, but to a little kid, the idea of putting on armor and assaulting a castle is pretty powerful.  I remember reading Howard Pyle's books about King Arthur and his knights.  The language was sometimes difficult, the illustrations looked old -- and in many books that would be a drawback -- but when you are reading about knights, that kind of authenticity is a bonus.  I did not know then that Pyle had written Otto.  And make no mistake, Otto is an odd book.  Otto is the son of a baron who is raised in a monastery to keep him safe from his father's political enemies.  Eventually, however, he is kidnapped.  The cool part of the book though is when his father's faithful servant, One-eyed Hans, is sent on a rescue mission.  Turns out that One-eyed Hans is a kind of cross between Middle-Earth's Aragorn, Marvel comic's Wolverine, and Artemis Fowl's Butler.  The story of him infiltrating the castle, sneaking out with Otto and fleeing to bring him to safety is wonderful.  And the end features a heroic stand on a bridge as well as a reformation and redemption. 

This book is a class, but it is not dull.  Kids who love knights will love it.  Good read-aloud of second and third grade, and a good book for motivated readers fourth grade and up.  It is a little violent, but I doubt anyone would challenge it. 

Cushman, Karen  (1995) The Midwife's Apprentice.  New York:  Clarion,

You know how in children's literature orphans like Harry Potter usually have annoying and negligent caregivers but usually their lives are not really that bad?  In the Middle Ages, orphans had it harder.  The girl named only Brat sleeps in a dung heap because it is warm and eats only that which she can steal.  She is noticed by (and eventually apprenticed to) a midwife who treats her like dirt and heaps abuse upon her.  As the books moves along, however, we see Brat (now called Beetle) slowly become confident and even willing to play tricks on those that give her a hard time.  Eventually she begins to dream of being a midwife herself, when a crisis of confidence derails her plans. 

This is the kind of book that my youngest daughter loves.  It has humor, desperation, and triumph, but it also has cats, babies, and waif's who need help.  Not sure you'll get a boy to give this a shot (though they should because they would love it), but it is sure to be a hit with girls.  Best for fourth and up.  There are some birth scenes, but nothing graphic.

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