Monday, July 11, 2011
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz 
My Rating: 4.5/10
Quick Summary: Twenty-three interconnected monologues and dialogues of the voices of the children from a Medieval Manor in England, in 1255.
Let me start out with the things I liked about this book, because the things I didn't like are going to take up most of this post.
The author is a children's librarian at a school, and her students were studying the Middle Ages. She wanted for them to have something to perform, and there was nothing out there that would allow all 17 students in a class to have a good part. So she sat down and wrote these pieces, which is pretty amazing in and of itself. They're good pieces, and interesting, and I can see where a class would have a lot of fun performing them. She knows her stuff, she doesn't sugarcoat what conditions were like, and she really manages to convey what the people were like in short strokes. This was an excellent bit of work for a specific niche, and I can only imagine how much fun her students had with it.
That being said, this is truly a book that lacks broad appeal, and I can see exactly why it was the impetus behind the Newbery controversy. This is not a book that practically any child would pick up on his or her own, and even the few that do are apt to drop it almost immediately.
I laughed when I read Schlitz's intro, with her complaints about having trouble finding parts for ALL SEVENTEEN people in her class. I checked out the home page for the Park School, and it is a private school where a year's tuition costs only a little less than a year at an expensive college. I attended a public school in the same state, but I don't believe I was ever in a classroom with less than 30 students. The time and the money and the level of adult participation it took for Schlitz's students to put on Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was completely beyond anything my elementary school could have managed (and we weren't even one of the worst off, by far).
Also, in terms of audience, this book is so WASPy and Euro-centric, I'm surprised my copy didn't spontaneously turn into a loaf of white bread. There is one Jewish character, and a brief mention of the Crusades (and don't even get my started on Schlitz' rather gross oversimplification of the very, very loaded issues associated with the above), and that's it. Speaking of loaded issues, one of the segments that I found particularly off-putting was the one about Constance, who is on a pilgrimage in the hopes of curing her crooked back. There's a footnote about how in the middle ages, being disabled meant that God had shunned you. Yeah, because that's not upsetting for any differently abled kids who pick up this book. Classy.
Oh, and speaking of footnotes, this book is chock full of them. Seriously, nearly every segment has at least a couple. Again, in the original context of a classroom, this isn't really a problem, but for someone who just picks this up off the shelf, the fact that so much of an 85-page book requires constant explanations; that's going to be a turn-off. (And I haven't even discussed the fact that it's mostly all poetry and blank verse...)
I'm not trying to say that there aren't kids out there who would be totally into this. There are plenty of precocious readers with a passion for history. But again, this is a very, very niche book, and not one for general audiences. But I guess sometimes the Newbery Medal shines a light on this sort of obscure book, so that it is available for those who are interested. Still, I feel like this would have been a better Newbery Honor book, rather than the Medal winner.