4.13.2009

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd, 96 pp, RL 5

Winner of the 2008 Newbery Award, Laura Amy Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village is unique in so many ways. While I cannot see it being read as a stand-alone book, but rather as part of a lesson plan, a drama project or in conjunction with other set in medieval England, this does not detract from its value and importance.

As she says in her forward to the book, Schlitz wrote "these plays for a group of students at the Park School, where I was a librarian." The students were studying the Middle Ages and experimenting with building catapults and miniature castles, baking bread, tending herbs, composing music and illuminating manuscripts. Schlitz wanted them to have something to perform so she wrote these "miniature plays," nineteen monologues and two dialogues so that each student would have a substantial part to perform. For this very reason, this book begs to be read aloud in a group. If this is not possible, make sure you find a copy of the audio version which includes a cast of seven superb readers and music from the piece Carmina Burana, a cantata composed in 1936 by Carl Orff that is based on twenty-four of the poems from the medieval manuscript of the same name. The writing is vivid and the verse often rhymes, but, when reading silently, there are distractions, albeit helpful ones, on the page in the form of footnotes that provide information word usage and definitions. There are also six sections titled "A Little Background," and they provide prose information on topics such as the three-field system of farming, Medieval Pilgrimages, Falconry and Jews in Medieval society. Robert Byrd's illustrations further enhance this magnificent book with a map of the village, full page illustrations and thumbnail portraits that accompany each voice.

Set in the year 1255, the first monologue is given to Hugo, the lord's nephew and the last is saved for Giles, the beggar. Schiltz writes in her forward that her characters are all children varying in age between ten and fifteen. While Schlitz says you can read the pieces in any order, they often are interconnected, one speaker mentioning the next and offering a different perspective on a situation, giving the pieces the feel of a story unfolding. Three of the stories, Will the lowboy, Pask the runaway and Nelly the snigger (eel catcher) are told in prose. And, between these verse and prose pieces, Schiltz manages to pack in a considerable amount of detail and plot. Among my favorites are Barbary, the mud slinger, who's dialogue tells of an overworked, wretched stepmother, worn down by her infant twins and expecting again. She begs Barbary to take the twins to the market to buy with him and as he walks and tries to make sense of the situation and manage the unruly babies who, "don't sleep at night./ They still puke out/ most of what you scoop into them." The sight of the lord's daughter, clean and waiting on by her maid, sends Barbary over the edge and he slings a handful of muck at her dress. But, he does not enjoy it and stops by the church on the way home to pray for forgiveness and ask that his step-mother not die or bear twins again.

A brilliant dialogue between Jacob Ben Salomon, the moneylender's son and Petronella, the merchant's daughter illustrates the accepted prejudice against Jews in the village and also the innocent ways in which children can sometimes overcome these prejudices. My favorite piece of all is another dialogue between two sisters, Mariot and Maude, glassblower's daughters. They speak of Piers, their father's apprentice, who has just delivered the previous dialogue. As was the custom, Piers can inherit the business by waiting for the master to die or by marrying one of his daughters. The girls ponder the possibility of having Piers as a husband, initially talking to each other, but in the end the perform dual soliloquies that blend together in humorous ways. Of all the pieces in the book, this was the one that I could best hear in my head as well as visualize in my imagination while reading to myself. It was so easy to imagine two sisters on a stage, talking to the audience while imagining a future with the alternately detestable and desirable Piers.

When Schlitz won the Newbery in 2008 there was some grumbling among those having anything to do with children's books, be they parents, teachers, booksellers or librarians. To some (perhaps those who had not read it, myself included) it seemed to be an obscure format for a book on a remote subject. However, having finally read and listened to this book, and, admittedly, being a fan of the medieval time period, there is no doubt in my mind that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! deserves the Newbery and every other award and recognition given to it and I hope that you all will have the opportunity to experience this book with a child some day in some way.

If your reader liked this book I suggest these other books set in medieval England:

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman (also a Newbery winner)
Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page by Richard Platt
Crispin: The Cross of Lead and Crispin: At the Edge of the World by Avi
The Book without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic by Avi
Sea of Trolls and Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer
Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry
The Door in the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli (also a Newbery winner)

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