Book Reviews: Sixth Grade Medieval Historical Fiction

My son is in a home school co-op this year. I am the fifth and sixth grade writing teacher. I was given my curriculum, which came complete with a list of reading for the year. So I read the novels along with the kids, and there were some mixed results. As you should be able to tell from the title of this blog entry, the theme of their writing course of the year was Medieval times, which was cool because they were also studying the Middle Ages in their history class. So there was a lot of overlap and it worked out nicely. I’ll just start plowing through the book reviews. (Note: We did not get to the last two books, due to Covid-19 and the stay at home restrictions. We missed a book about Marco Polo and one about the Crusades.)

STORY OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTSThe first book we read was The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, by Tania Zamorsky. If you know me at all (even just as a blog follower), you know that I enjoy King Arthur stuff. I have reviewed several King Arthur books and series here on the blog, as well as some TV series and maybe a movie. My second novel (a novella, actually) is based in the Middle Ages and has the flavor of Camelot. So I was excited to begin the year this way. I hadn’t read any children’s chapter books about King Arthur, and, well, this would not be the one I would recommend. There must be better out there. (Or not. I am only guessing.)  It has decent ratings, but it just wasn’t very engaging. Sure, it told some of the stories so that kids could follow along, but it lacked cohesion (perhaps on purpose, remaining true to the bits-and-pieces legends) and it just wasn’t a page-turner. I didn’t enjoy it and either did the kids. It fell flat. It may be that I enjoy King Arthur approached with a more modern sense of storytelling, but I kept wondering where all the drama and the energy was. The romance. The adventure. It felt almost textbook-y. I wonder if the Howard Pyle original might have been better.

ROBIN HOODAnd then we went into Robin Hood by J. Walker McSpadden. Again, I rejoiced, because I like Robin Hood stories, although not nearly as much as King Arthur. I also hear Bryan Adams singing in my head whenever Robin Hood is mentioned. And again I was disappointed. And again I was left hoping there was a better version of the Robin Hood stories for children. This book was actually better than the other, though. Written better a little bit. Actually had some life in it, and a sense of humor. It was broken up into stories without a real arc (or at least one you noticed while it was arcing), however, and this made it hard to keep reading. I asked the same questions as last time, except less about adventure and more: where’s the romance and maybe where’s the drama? If you have a kid on your hands who likes short stories and British history, then perhaps this is the book for him or her. I mean, English children have been loving these stories for like a million years, so maybe yours will as well. Sadly, this book (though a Dover classic,) made the stories feel outdated.

KING'S SHADOWI had no idea what to expect from The King’s Shadow by Elizabeth Alder. Turns out it is a book about a Welsh boy who is orphaned and maimed and then betrayed into slavery among the Anglo-Saxons. In the Middle Ages, of course. His tongue is cut out near the beginning of the book, so I had to warn parents about this. Not that it was especially graphic, but the idea is a little intense. Evyn, the boy, is resilient and has just enough luck and intelligence to be able to make himself useful and be promoted over and over until he is, as the title says, the King’s shadow. Since the children had already learned about King Harold and the Battle of Hastings, it was nice to make connections to history. On the other hand, I used this book to teach the kids a couple of things that they should NOT do when they write. (Among other things, they should not use physical attributes as sure indicators of characteristics. Just because someone is tall and muscular does not make him a great king, etc. or just because someone is wearing black and has a scar does not make him a villain. The author does this regularly. There’s also a whole lot of telling and not showing going on, so we learned about that.) While the book was useful as a tool for teaching writing pitfalls, again we found ourselves not enjoying a book. Though I had one or two who did like this book and reviews online are pretty good. I really didn’t like it.

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE ARABIAN NIGHTSAnd then we read One Thousand and One Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean and I felt very happy. My mind had been trained by now not to expect much from this reading list, though it kept to topics that I normally would really enjoy. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights was a book that I had been meaning to read for many years. This is, obviously, a version of the Islamic classic adapted for children. Which makes it a bit awkward, because the premise is this: King Sharyar is jilted and spends years in bitterness, marrying a new woman every day to have her executed the next morning. The clever Shaharazad “sacrifices” herself by marrying the king and uses storytelling to keep him from executing her day after day after day.  We, as the reader, get to listen in to all the tales. Again, I had to warn the parents about the sadistic king. Containing within it some real classics, like Aladdin and Ali Baba and the forty thieves, I was blown away by the humor and the voice of this rendition. In the end, I would probably recommend it for an older audience, but I really had a great time reading this and marveling at the cleverness of the story itself. Maybe one day I’ll get around to reading the original, but I also wouldn’t mind giving this one another read on my own.

THE DOOR IN THE WALLThe Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli felt like déjà vu. It’s about a boy who loses everything, including his future plans and his legs (instead of tongue) to the Plague. Robin finds himself at the mercy of the monks and with his personality and his ability to learn, he works his way up and finds a new future for himself. So, very similar to The King’s Shadow. While this one tends to get lower reviews than the other, I can’t agree with that. I thought that this book had a charm that the other was lacking, even if it still wasn’t my favorite. A Newbery Award winner, it is a bit heavy on the morals and perhaps suffers from a lack of action, but I still liked it alright and would recommend it for the right child.

ADAM OF THE ROADBefore Covid-19 forced us into quarantine, we read Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray. Another Newbery Award-winner, this was my second-favorite book of the bunch because it contained a levity and tenderness that I enjoyed. It’s about yet another boy who suffers a loss and has to be strong, keep going, and use his wits to overcome. In this version, he loses his dog and his father, both of which he pursues for the duration of the book. Part of why this book is so interesting is because of the sheer otherness of Adam’s experiences in contrast to a child today. As a minstrel’s child, Adam had almost complete free-range and he lived on the road, which could mean sleeping on the side of it. While we can see a little around it, Adam adores his father and his life as the son of a minstrel, and I was intrigued by what this life might have looked like in the Middle Ages. The book gives you a glimpse into life at the time and also gives you a handful of characters to love.

Here are a few titles in middle grades Middle Ages, which I have not read, that might be worth a try. (They are also more diverse.):

  • The Inquisitor’s Tale, Hatem Ally
  • Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction, David Macaulay
  • The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, Katherine Patterson
  • Possibly The Shakespeare Stealer Trilogy
  • The Crystal Ribbon, Celeste Lim
  • The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, Diane Magras
  • The Ugly One, Leanna Statland Ellis
  • I might recommend trying Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Avi) or Leonardo’s Shadow (Christopher Peter Grey), but I’m tired to stories of boys in the Middle Ages who lose everything and have to be resilient and have their wits about them to succeed.

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