Monday, September 26, 2016

The Inquisitor's Tale, by Adam Gidwitz -- serious fun, terrific storytelling (ages 9-14)

In a recent interview in The Horn Book, Adam Gidwitz talks about his teaching days as being filled with "serious fun" -- I love that concept. Yes, kids love having fun, laughing, sharing silly or gross stories. They also love to dig into serious topics and want us adults to ask for their opinions.

Gidwitz has legions of fans for his exciting, engrossing retellings of Grimm's tales. In his newest book, he tackles medieval life, religious intolerance and the power of deep loyal friendship--all with a healthy dose of fun, adventure and brilliant storytelling.
We begin our tale at a travelers' inn, hearing about three children fleeing for their lives from Louis, the powerful king of France (for history buffs, this is Louis IX, commonly known as Saint Louis). Each child is ostracized, isolated in their own way, until fate brings them together. Jeanne's neighbors worry that her seizures and visions mean that she's possessed by witchcraft. When her dog Gwenforte, who saved her life as a baby, comes back to life, Jeanne escapes into the forest.

illuminations by Hatem Aly
Jeanne meets up with William, a young African oblate (a monk-in-training), and Jacob, a Jewish boy whose village was burned to the ground by an antisemitic mob. Each child is wary and full of fear at first, but they grow to trust each other.

In the High Middle Ages, life was defined by class and religion--completely different from today. And yet, was it? It was a time full of intense distrust of "the other," people who belong to a different religion or social group. And at the same time, a time marked by rapid social changes, spurred by urban centers, economic development and trade across boundaries.

What will draw children to this story? They will love Gidwitz's storytelling as William battles the fiends in the forest, or Jacob cures the farting dragon by realizing stinky cheese is setting his farts on fire. They will love the way Gwenforte the greyhound is loyal to the children, guiding and protecting them.

Young readers will also connect emotionally to Jeanne, William and Jacob--feeling often as they do, that no one understands them except for their loyal friends. Hatem Aly's illustrations provide both humorous relief and concrete grounding for this complex story.
A portion of the famous Unicorn Tapestries depicting a hound on the hunt. This dog partly inspired Gwenforte the Greyhound, the holy dog.
Just as importantly, children will be drawn into this story where young heroes decide to take a stand for what's right, fighting against ignorance and intolerance, proclaiming that collaboration and friendship is not only possible across social groups but thrives among different social groups. Society is still struggling with these very issues today.

One early reader told me, "I'm loving this story because it's full of so many different people. Most stories I read have characters who are all the same. Here, everyone is different and that's so interesting."

Serious fun. Brilliant storytelling. Fascinating history. And an opportunity to wrestle with important social and religious issues. Friends, this is definitely a must-read, must-share story.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Penguin. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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