When Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village won the 2008 Newbery Medal, it was virtually assured a place in every library collection and on every bookstore's "classics" shelf. But, aside from its designation as the best work for children of the previous year, why should readers pick up this somewhat hard-to-pin-down collection? History buffs, poetry fans and those with a flare for the dramatic will all find something to treasure in Schlitz's charming compilation of historical research and moving fiction.
Schlitz, a school librarian in Baltimore, first conceived of this book when she was helping a school class conduct research on the Middle Ages. The children wanted to share their new knowledge in a class presentation, but no one wanted a small part. The result? A collection of more than 20 loosely interconnected monologues and plays for two voices, each one focusing on a young person living in a medieval village in 1255. A manuscript of the work was plucked out of a slush pile by an assistant at Candlewick Press in 2000 and finally published seven years after the author submitted it.
Some of the plays are written in free verse, others in jaunty or plaintive rhyming stanzas. Each one offers insight not only into the life and times of specific members of this manor community—from the lord's nephew and the glassblower's apprentice to the runaway and the beggar—but also into each speaker's individual personality.
Some of the issues raised will strike a chord with modern readers—the near-starving runaway who licks porridge from a kind girl's hands, the Jewish moneylender's son and merchant's daughter who share a brief moment of understanding before returning to their separate worlds. Others will surprise readers, especially those unfamiliar with the medieval period. Fortunately, Schlitz's helpful footnotes and mini-historical essays help shed light on some of the more unfamiliar aspects of the Middle Ages. Robert Byrd's charmingly detailed ink and watercolor illustrations also help bring the character's voices to life.
Schlitz's well-researched volume will certainly find a place in elementary and middle-school history classrooms, as well as in literature classes, serving as the perfect introduction for students who might encounter Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (which uses a similar multi-voiced approach) later in their scholastic careers. But Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! should not be limited to academic use; readers who enjoy acting out plays for friends and relatives, who dream of distant lands and long-ago times, who enjoy the rhythms and rhymes of poetry, will treasure this collection of voices from the past.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #6
Schlitz gives teachers a refreshing option for enhancing the study of the European Middle Ages: here are seventeen monologues and two dialogues that collectively create a portrait of life on an English manor in 1255. A plowboy, a knight's son, and a sniggler (eel-catcher), among other boys and girls ages ten to fifteen, say their pieces. Rhythm and style vary to suit each role, from breathless, thrusting phrases as a knight's son describes a boar hunt to the lighthearted rhyming of a shamelessly dishonest miller boy. Schlitz conveys information about class, attitudes, and social practices through the monologues, footnote-like sidebars, and six spreads titled "A Little Background" that offer fuller explanations of farming practices, the Crusades, falconry, and more. Schlitz acknowledges some of the nastier aspects of this oft-romanticized period (such as its persecution of Jews), but in gentle, moderate language. Byrd's pristine, elegant pen-and-ink illustrations in opulent colors make the book almost too visually appealing, belying the realistically dirty, stinky conditions described in the text. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 July #2
Schlitz takes the breath away with unabashed excellence in every direction. This wonderfully designed and produced volume contains 17 monologues for readers ten to 15, each in the voice of a character from an English town in 1255. Some are in verse; some in prose; all are interconnected. The language is rich, sinewy, romantic and plainspoken. Readers will immediately cotton to Taggot, the blacksmith's daughter, who is big and strong and plain, and is undone by the sprig of hawthorn a lord's nephew leaves on her anvil. Isobel the lord's daughter doesn't understand why the peasants throw mud at her silks, but readers will: Barbary, exhausted from caring for the baby twins with her stepmother who is pregnant again, flings the muck in frustration. Two sisters speak in tandem, as do a Jew and a Christian, who marvel in parallel at their joy in skipping stones on water. Double-page spreads called "A little background" offer lively information about falconry, The Crusades, pilgrimages and the like. Byrd's watercolor-and-ink pictures add lovely texture and evoke medieval illustration without aping it. Brilliant in every way. (foreword, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-15) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection - November/December 2007
Readers are introduced to the entire social strata of an English medieval town by 22 villagers from all walks of life, from the lord's nephew and daughter, apprentices, trades people, and artisans, to the lowliest beggar. Most of these characters are children or young people. Characters describe themselves through first-person monologues that are written to be read or recited by students. Annotations and notes are included on page margins to explain factual information and old English terminology, a feature that gives the book a scholarly feel, but which are very age-appropriate. Monologues are followed by straightforward informational text, "A Little Background," written in a narrative style. Color illustrations in the style of medieval tapestries or panels illuminate the text. Margin borders are each a different pattern reminiscent of the age. Depending on the grade level of students using this title, it will make a valuable supplement to history classes, English literature studies including Chaucer, and as an unusual variation on reader's theatre. Art classes can also use the illustrations to supplement any study of medieval art. Recommended. Shelley Glantz, Reviews Editor, Library Media Connection Â© 2007 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 August #4
Schlitz (The Hero Schliemann ) wrote these 22 brief monologues to be performed by students at the school where she is a librarian; here, bolstered by lively asides and unobtrusive notes, and illuminated by Byrd's (Leonard, Beautiful Dreamer) stunningly atmospheric watercolors, they bring to life a prototypical English village in 1255. Adopting both prose and verse, the speakers, all young, range from the half-wit to the lord's daughter, who explains her privileged status as the will of God. The doctor's son shows off his skills ("Ordinary sores/ Will heal with comfrey, or the white of an egg,/ An eel skin takes the cramping from a leg"); a runaway villein (whose life belongs to the lord of his manor) hopes for freedom after a year and a day in the village, if only he can calculate the passage of time; an eel-catcher describes her rough infancy: her "starving poor [father] took me up to drown in a bucket of water." (He relents at the sight of her "wee fingers" grasping at the sides of the bucket.) Byrd, basing his work on a 13th-century German manuscript, supplies the first page of each speaker's text with a tone-on-tone patterned border overset with a square miniature. Larger watercolors, some with more intricate borders, accompany explanatory text for added verve. The artist does not channel a medieval style; rather, he mutes his palette and angles some lines to hint at the period, but his use of cross-hatching and his mostly realistic renderings specifically welcome a contemporary readership. Ages 10-up. (Aug.)[Page 90]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-8-- Schlitz helps students step directly into the shoes--and lives--of medieval children in this outstanding collection of interrelated monologues. Designed for performance and excellent for use in interdisciplinary history classrooms, the book offers students an incredibly approachable format for learning about the Middle Ages that makes the period both realistic and relevant. The text, varying from dramatic to poetic, depending on the point of view, is accompanied by historical notes that shed light on societal roles, religion, and town life. Byrd's illustrations evoke the era and give dramatists ideas for appropriate costuming and props. Browsers interested in medieval life will gravitate toward this title, while history buffs will be thrilled by the chance to make history come alive through their own voices.--Alana Abbott, James Blackstone Memorial Library, Branford, CT[Page 138]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.