The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 256 pp, RL 4

The Beatryce Prophecy 

by Kate DiCamillo

illustrated by Sophie Blackall 

Review Copy from Candlewick Books

Set in "a time of war," The Beatryce Prophecy is a fable filled with characters who are bent, but not broken on their way to a happy ending that comes at the cost of a devastating beginning. 

The titular prophecy, found in the "Chronicles of Sorrowing," speaks of a child who will unseat a king. It is a prophecy largely ignored because this child will be a girl in a realm where it is "against the law to teach a girl to read, a woman to write." When Beatryce is discovered by Brother Eidk at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing, feverish and sleeping in the barn with Answelica, a cleverly cruel and single-minded goat who terrifies all at the monastery, he quickly discovers that she must be the child of the prophecy and does all he can to protect her. As the story unfolds, readers learn more about Beatryce, who at first has only one curious memory of the life she led before she arrived, covered in dirt and blood, at the monastery. And, as Beatryce herself recovers he memories of life before, she comes into her power - storytelling. Collecting protectors and collaborators as she flees, then faces her fate, Beatryce teaches a boy whose parents were murdered to read and is helped by the former king, who walked away from his throne to live in a tree in the dark woods, all with Answelica, her fiercest protector, at her side.

While I love the Southern oddness of the Mercy Watson/Deckawoo Drive books, I struggle with DiCamillo's novels for older readers. Julie Schumacher, writer, professor of creative writing, and friend of DiCamillo's, clarified my feelings perfectly when she said of DiCamillo's writing, "There is no beating around the bush. The characters suffer. There's great suffering in these books, there's great loneliness - a sense of abandonment that pervades everything she has written." For me, this vein of suffering and loneliness - something I am able to tolerate and appreciate in children's books - is almost intolerable for me in DiCamillo's works, and I think that I finally understand why. I am a big fan of a children's book where the main character overcomes challenges, loss, hardships, suffering and danger through their own bravery, grit, intelligence and ability to love. I especially enamored of this kind of children's book when there is a mentor character, guiding, protecting and even fighting for the best interests of the main character while also standing back to let the main character learn by doing. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiller, Sam Westing, or Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who stand out as mentor characters from the novels I read as a child. A mentor is something I yearned for as a child and young adult, and the mentor characters in books I read as a child helped create a roadmap for how to be the mentor I never had to my own children and the children I worked with. Reading and thinking about The Beatryce Prophecy, I realized that these mentor characters don't exist in DiCamillo's novels. Her main characters make it to the end of their stories alone - OK, but alone. I know there is value and inspiration that young readers can gain from loneliness and suffering that DiCamillo's characters experience, but for me these experiences echo the harder parts of my childhood too loudly. 

DiCamillo's skillful storytelling makes the medieval setting and brutalities of The Beatryce Prophecy - like that fact that Beatryce's beloved brothers and kindhearted tutor are murdered in front of her, almost tolerable. But, when Beatryce finds herself summoned to the bedside of their killer, who is in agony over what he has done and wanting his confession to be recorded by a monk, the way in which Beatryce disassociates in order to live through this torturous moment of profound sadness is difficult to bear as a reader, even if she copes by writing the first lines of what will become a story that plays a significant, healing role later on in the novel. True, Beatryce does have the young, brave whistler (another survivor of a brutal murder) Jack Dory just outside, waiting to help her if needed, and the maple candies tucked into her satchel by Brother Edik (a man sent away from his home as a child because his father disliked him), and the solid, animal comfort of the goat, Beatryce is in that room with the man who murdered her brothers all by herself, and she survives all by herself. Even the character of Cannoc, the king who walked away from his throne, serves only as someone to teach Jack Dory how to fight with a sword (but not use it) and offers not much more than shelter to Beatryce. Even in a medieval setting, the adults in DiCamillo's novels do not offer comfort and safety, but are often the cause of danger. The Beatryce Prophecy ends on a hopeful note. Beatryce is reunited with her mother, who becomes the queen, and she and Jack Dory are given the task of teaching all the people in their land to read. A happy ending, but one that does not diminish at all the pain and loss that occurred in order to reach it.

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