Kids and the Crusades

a grim 'Faerie' tale

runaway mother

Young Readers

July 10, 2005|By Mary Harris Russell | Mary Harris Russell,Chicago Tribune

Blood Red Horse

By K.M. Grant. Walker. Ages 11-15 years.

Imagine the complexity of human events that fit under the label of "the Crusades," as seen by young English Christians and by a young Muslim boy. Covering the years 1185 to 1193, and from England to Jerusalem, K.M. Grant follows the lives of four young people. Will and Gavin, of Hartslove Castle in northern England, ride to follow their father in King Richard's service. Eleanor, their father's ward and their friend, stays home at Hartslove. Kamil is a young ward of Saladin. Add one amazing horse, Hosanna. Grant does a graceful job with all the historical knowledge brought to bear; we are convinced, by the slow acquisition of detail, just how different are the lives these young people lead, as well as the lives of monks, assassins, military leaders and civilians. And in a very tricky combination, Grant blends historical fiction with a horse story, makes it work and makes us want a promised sequel.

Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie

By Holly Black. Simon & Schuster. Ages 14-17 years.

Forget those cute little Victorian fairies wearing gauzy dresses. Holly Black goes to more grim folkloric traditions, about creatures not human and not nice, our powerful and usually unseen neighbors. Throw in Manhattan, grotty subway platforms, homeless dwellers in the tunnels and some of the scariest, punked-out teens you've ever seen. Val is an unhappy New Jersey teen who one evening runs off in a rage to the city, but this Manhattan is darker and more multi-layered than you've ever thought, with opposing fairy gangs dealing their own drugs, which humans like as well. Searingly ugly and tough, but a page-turner.

The Search for Belle Prater

By Ruth White. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Ages 10-14 years.

In 1954, Coal Station, Va., is small. Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster and her cousin, Woodrow Prater, are in the same 7th-grade homeroom, and even the new girl who joins the class in December, Cassie Caulborne, gets filled in by her classmates on how Woodrow's mother, Belle, just upped and ran away. Nobody's mean about the facts, and everybody's struggling with something, in this little town that seems big compared to life scrabbled out in the hollers nearby. Cassie, who claims to carry second sight in her family, joins Gypsy and Woodrow as they carry the search for Belle to nearby Bluefield, and "blue" weaves significantly all the way through. The bus trips to Bluefield (Cassie's father is the driver) are worth the price of admission all by themselves. The search is as moving as its ending.

The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century

By Uri Shulevitz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Ages 8-12 years.

Benjamin Tudela was the greatest Jewish traveler of the Middle Ages; working from the original Hebrew and other sources on the period, Uri Shulevitz has created a series of vistas on the actual state of travel in the 12th century, a selection about "the most amazing places" Benjamin saw and "the most fascinating stories" he heard. The separate stories focus on places or moments of excitement: pirates, Rome, Constantinople, " the Crusaders. It is difficult to imagine this book without Shulevitz's pictures, which combine the intensity of medieval manuscript illuminations and maps with almost dreamlike geographical vistas.

The McElderry Book of Aesop's Fables

By Michael Morpugo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. McElderry. Ages 9-12 years.

Michael Morpugo and Emma Chichester Clark create a strong contender for a household fable collection. Morpugo takes the time to tell the stories, instead of trying to condense them and pretend that younger children would like them. It will take a slightly older reader to exist comfortably in a world where prey are eaten, not saved, and cleverness and wit can win, but only if you take enough time. Sometimes the morals aren't the tag lines you remember from smaller versions, but Morpugo has often enlarged the meaning. Morpugo's thank-you note to Aesop is a treat, wryly reminding us that fables are meant not to induce sleep, but thinking.

Best Foot Forward

By Joan Bauer. Putnam. Ages 11-14 years.

Jenna Boller works hard and has a passionate gift for, believe it or not, selling shoes. Young readers of Joan Bauer's earlier Rules of the Road will be glad to see Jenna again. Instead of concentrating on just the problems in this rising high school junior's life -- an alcoholic father, a grandmother with Alzheimer's disease -- Bauer concentrates instead on the flow of energy that keeps Jenna going as she continues her work as driver and personal assistant to Mrs. Goldstone, the owner of a large shoe-store chain. This time around there are extra problems when Mrs. G sympathetically takes in as an employee a young man caught shoplifting, and sweatshop issues taint the pipeline of what Jenna had believed were all-American shoes. Jenna has a witty eye for all the human grief that comes to bear in the purchase of a pair of shoes.

Mary Harris Russell, who teaches English at Indiana University Northwest, reviews children's books for the Tribune.

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