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The first author to win both the Newbery Medal (for Walk Two Moons) and the Carnegie Medal (for Ruby Holler) here deviates from her general habit of depicting present-day kids in dramatic situations. Instead, she conjures a make-believe kingdom somewhere in medieval Italy, with a king and a queen, a princess and two princes, hermits, peasants, servants, and knights.
King Guido of the Castle Corona is a silly, idle, indecisive king who is afraid of snakes, given to over-eating, and more interested in naps than doing his duty. His royal wife wants to get closer to the people, but doesn’t know how to go about it. The heir to the throne is a gentle, sensitive, empty-headed prince. His sister, the princess, is a spoiled brat who likes fine clothes but wishes she knew what it was all for. There’s also a spare prince who has inherited all the aggressive genes in the family, a hermit who perplexes the king with his wise platitudes, and a wordsmith (or storyteller) whose tales plant uncomfortable ideas in the royal family’s heads.
Downhill from the castle, in the neighboring village, live a peasant girl named Pia and her little brother Enzio. When their duties as servants to a grouchy grocer allow, they dream of living the easy life of the princess and princes—riding horses, fencing, eating rich food, and all. But when they find a pouch seemingly stolen from the castle, their make-believe games take a turn toward guilty secrets and threatening trouble from the king’s men. Then the village’s wise woman disappears, and soon afterward Pia and Enzio are taken to the Castle Corona under guard.
It turns out that they haven’t been arrested. The king has suddenly decided to worry about thieves and poisoners, so he hires the two peasant children to be his food tasters. And the old woman has been hired as the queen’s own hermit. This brings Pia and Enzio closer to the royal way of life than they ever expected to come. And while their simple manners grate against the feelings of the princes and the princess, their coming to the castle brings the top and bottom layers of society closer together than ever before. Each character finds him- or herself reconsidering his or her attitudes and feelings about each other. And the changes that happen as a result, happen mostly inside the people of the Castle Corona.
This is an unusual work of medievalism. There are no great conflicts or thrilling mysteries. There are no goblins or elves, wizards or warriors (except in the imagination of young Prince Vito). All the things you expect to find in a fairy-tale or fantasy novel are requested by the hearers of the Wordsmith’s tales, and though we don’t directly see or hear the stories he makes of them, the thoughts of the king, queen, princess, and princes after each night’s story, suggests that even the Wordsmith delivers something other than the expected.
Both the Wordsmith and Creech challenge their audience to think not about the sensational stuff people seek in stories about medieval castles, but about the much calmer way life goes on between those stories—during times when there are no heroes, but only regular people. And they both challenge their audience to peek around the edges of the silly, selfish filters through which we usually look at the world; to see things differently, to treat other people better; and even to adjust our dreams, so that other people can enjoy them with us.