The setting of this book is in 1285 when the world was ruled by kings and queens, barons, earls, dukes, bishops and abbots, knights, noblewomen, priests and chaplains – what we now recognize as feudalism. However, instead of presenting ordinary boring facts about how people lived in Western Europe during this period, Richard Platt has yet again succeeded in humanizing what has often been a romanticized period in history – especially among children who grew up in fairy tales where prince and princesses seem to live a charmed existence.
Instead of perpetuating fantastical notions of how beautiful and grand it must have been like to live in a castle, be a prince or how it is like to learn the valiant ways of a knight – the “transcription” of Richard Platt and the “illumination” of Chris Riddell demonstrated – with startlingly real depictions – how ‘ordinary,’ occasionally colorful, and oftentimes boring – life could be as viewed through the eyes of Tobias, our young page.
Contrary to our young eleven year olds at present who struggle to learn maths, sciences, languages – and amuse themselves through sports, network gaming, facebook (and various other social networking websites) – Tobias traveled twenty miles away from home by horse to stay with his uncle, a Baron to learn how to become a squire – then later on, knighthood.
This means that he has to learn Latin and English, and read pages off the Scriptures. Over and beyond that, Tobias needs to learn “courtesy, and the manners and customs of a noble family” – translated to running errands, carrying messages and carving slices of meat and filling his uncle and aunt’s cups during meal times – not very romantic now, is it? I was also amused at the fact that their “time-out” for misbehaving in class consists of standing for an hour with their hands enclosed by pillory boards – known as the “finger pillory.” I recall my fingers being playfully slapped by my piano teacher whenever I make a mistake in my scales as a child – that seemed kind now if placed alongside the pillory board during Tobias’ time.
As our young page takes us on a personal journey on how it is like to be away from home, the reader is regaled with stories of hunting, learning longshanks, bread-making (apparently beer foam acts as a baking soda/baking powder during Tobias’ period, if I understood it correctly), and yes, archery!
Part of the charm of the book is that it manages to capture even the sordid aspects of daily living. Tobias narrates what happened during a period of drought in the castle when the garderobes (toilets) started reeking due to lack of rain and a blockage in one of the chutes (sewerage system). Boys would be fascinated with this, particularly with the role played by the Gong-Farmer whose main task is to “reach up inside this slimy pipe to unclog it.”
Another strength of the book is its ability to introduce all these new terminologies without sounding artificial – it does not sound as if the author is giving a lecture and narrating facts. Tobias is very real in the story and his voice clearly rings out in the pages – he becomes a full-bodied character with whom the reader can laugh and cry with. Sentimentality is stripped though from the narrative – just a casual, amusing, light-hearted retelling of what happened to him during the day – very much like a young boy: little drama, limited fanfare and no needless elaboration or exploration of affective sensibilities. Educators, highly-discerning parents, and information-hungry young children would also be happy to note that similar to the Roman Diary, this book also has Extensive Notes for the Reader in the end discussing in greater depth the historical period during Tobias’ time – contextualizing his personal narrative with what was going on historically in that part of Europe. It also provides wonderful details of the castle infrastructure, siege weapons, suit of armours and the art of heraldry.
Chris Riddell has also brought Tobias’ historical period to life in his trademark style of illustrating – very graphic novel-like – only without the comic-boxes and in full color. The story has no doubt been greatly enriched and enhanced by the illustrations which seem to have a life of their own. While Tobias’ emotions may not be explicitly stated, the whimsical expressive drawings would leave no doubt to the reader exactly how he might be feeling or thinking. The acrobats seem to leap off the page, the knives about to cut the reader’s fingers off – all such amazing detail and all found in a picture book. A young child could spend around thirty minutes just exploring all the details found in a full-spread of Riddell’s drawings. If you want to know more about Chris Riddell, click here to be taken to his website.
Cheers to Castles, Knights, and yes Gong-Farmers!
References Book cover from http://www.books4yourkids.com/2008/09/castle-diary-journal-of-tobias-burgess.html Website of Chris Riddell – http://www.stewartandriddell.co.uk/ Pan MacMillan – http://www.panmacmillan.com/chrisriddell/ Book borrowed from the community library Book photos were taken by me