Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine

I really, really, really loved this book when it first came out. It’s still pretty great, but on a disappointing note I think I might be the first person to take it out from my local library because it’s in pristine condition. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing! Full-on romance, courtly love, beautiful gowns, everything you need from a romance in the twelfth century.

Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136, Kristiana Gregory, 2002.

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Eleanor is one of the most interesting women in French and English history—queen of France, Crusader, queen of England, prisoner, dowager queen and mother of Richard I and John I—wow, there’s a lot going on in her life. This book alludes to some of it, but it doesn’t become overwhelming or irritating with its “let’s preface the future, tee hee” hints—it’s just an interesting window into her early life, which is frequently overshadowed in favour of the zillions of interesting things that happened later in her life.

As we open, Eleanor is thirteen and living in Poitiers with her younger sister, Petronilla, and her grandmother and the rest of the court. She has a crush on one of the knights, Clotaire, and spends a lot of time writing about how dreamy and strong he is, which is…pretty realistic. The girls’ father has been excommunicated by the Pope for supporting the antipope, and the court in general is quite, ah, lusty. “Petra’s gown is emerald, mine blue, and our shoes are white silk beaded with pearls. When we dance we may have to kick out our feet to show them off.” That right there, that’s probably 90% of the reason I liked this so much as a kid.

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Catherine, Called Birdy

Would you believe this is the first time I’m reading this? For some reason I missed this as a kid, which seems like an outrageous oversight. I can’t explain it.

Catherine, Called Birdy¸ Karen Cushman, 1994.

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How did no one buy me this book as a kid? It was a Newbery Honor book and it would have been right up my alley! But instead here I am with the 20th anniversary edition, enjoying it as an adult and totally unable to share what I thought of it as a kid. Such is life. Anyway, Karen Cushman wrote the excellent The Midwife’s Apprentice and has an excellent reputation for children’s historical fiction, so I am practically preprogrammed to enjoy this.

This is a journal-style book, except it has the charming detail of including which saint’s feast day every day is, and some expository detail. “28th Day of January, Feast of Saint John the Sage, an Irish philosopher who was stabbed to death by his students.” “3rd Day of November, Feast of Saint Rumwald, who at three days old said ‘I am a Christian’ and died.” This is also pretty much the Ur-Example of “girl who doesn’t want to submit to society’s expectations about her,” which is the most common trope in all the books I review, but it’s done reasonably well here so I won’t complain about it too much. Other than right here.

So the idea and driving force behind this whole book is that Catherine (called Birdy, because of her attraction to birds) is fast approaching the age where she’ll need to be married off, and she does not want to be at all. Her father is a rough and cruel lackwit, but he’s doing his best to get Catherine married off to a wealthy man as quickly as possible. Catherine’s job is basically to try to outwit him at every pass. She does a surprisingly good job for a young teenager, which either speaks to her wit or her father’s lack. The first suitor comes calling and Catherine manages to dispatch him by blacking out some teeth with soot and behaving like an idiot at dinner. Mission accomplished.

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Cannons at Dawn

I would wager a good bet that few of you guys who enjoyed The Winter of the Red Snow as a kid even knew that this book existed. Trust me, you were better off that way.

Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779, Kristiana Gregory, 2011.

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Now, before I start complaining, I’ll note two things: one, that this was an experiment as the first “sequel” diary in the Dear America series (and the last); and secondly, that Gregory’s longtime editor passed away before this book was written, and I wonder if the change in editing tone made a major difference to the book. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I would have hoped for.

Now to the complaints: this book is one of those that wants to zip through a ton of time super fast and consequently sacrifices good plot. So instead of having a short period of time and a story that moves along well, we have half a book of good story and half a book that’s just basically recounting facts and skipping months and months at a time. Which is OK, but not particularly what I look for in a Dear America book! The Winter of the Red Snow has charm and cheek. Cannons at Dawn is a slog.

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Number The Stars

We’re back in with the absolute classics!

Number The Stars¸ Lois Lowry, 1989.

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I understand they’re reissued this with a blue/gray cover, but this is the cover I grew up with and was on every school library bookshelf. I feel like the red and black is a particularly scary, and by scary I mean good, choice. This is a Newbery Medal winner, and an all-around wonder of a book, but I think the real beauty of this book is that it’s much, much scarier to adults than it is to kids. When I first read this book, I was probably around nine or ten, which is the age of Annemarie, the protagonist, and while I enjoyed it, I think I missed a lot of the subtler scariness. But now I’m nearly thirty and reading it is far, far worse, and it makes me want to cry.

Annemarie lives in Copenhagen with her parents and her younger sister, Kirsti. Since Copenhagen is under occupation by the Nazis, things are somewhat strained to say the least, but most of this goes over Annemarie’s head other than the soldiers on every street corner. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and presumably a bit more worried about the state of affairs, but they still go to school and run races and generally behave like children. Annemarie used to have an older sister as well—Lise—who was engaged to be married when she was killed in a car accident two years before. Ever since, Lise’s fiancé Peter comes around to visit, but Annemarie notes how much older he seems ever since then.

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Jahanara: Princess of Princesses

Welcome to 2017! Let’s start the year off with an excellent example of YA fiction that teaches without being preachy, and is a ball of fun to read as well, and will probably make you want to go drink some tea.

I never had one lick of the history of India in school, other than maybe a brief pass by the East India Trading Company, which is of course a tragedy, but reading books like this desperately makes me wish I had. Indian history is fascinating.

Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, India, 1627, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

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If you are like me and know very little Indian history, which is to my shame, Jahanara is the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz. Jahanara lives at court with her mother and her father’s three other wives: Tali, who is Persian; Indira, who is Hindu, and Samina, who is only described as “sour;” along with the various children and eunuchs in the court. They observer purdah, which means that they do not go out in public and are not seen by men outside of the circle, and Jahanara, at fourteen, feels trapped.

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