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.