Review of the Day: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, ill. Sophie Blackall
As our world sinks more and more comfortably into a general morass of technology, it should be little wonder that recent children’s books have grown increasingly comfortable shrugging off our modern day beeps and boops in favor of (of all things) the Middle Ages. The author that digs deep into the muck of the past sometimes finds literary medals buried there. Think of recent Newbery Honors The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz and The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Think too of graphic novels like Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis. Mind you, each of these books grapple with religion in some fashion, going so far as to throw in the occasional angel for spice. In a time when there seems to be a thick wedge between books for kids that are entirely secular and those that are chock full o’ religious fervor, these types of stories that walk a line between the two are rarities. Kate DiCamillo isn’t afraid of lobbing the occasional angel at you, whether it has blue wings or smells like a sewer, but in her latest book The Beatryce Prophecy there’s something else on her mind. Pairing with the utterly lovely Sophie Blackall, the two present us with a story that has all the trappings of a fable, and all the reality of a thoroughly thrilling tale.
There was once a girl and she was covered in blood. She was found by Brother Edik, curled up asleep, wracked with fever, beside the monastery’s resident demon goat, Answelica. Though that creature had never had time for any person before, it was clearly devoted to the child. Alas, the girl, Beatryce, lost her memory. Worse still, she appeared to be capable of reading and writing. Determined to protect her, Brother Edik disguised her as a boy and shaved her head, while not far away, forces conspired against her: A king who works to stay on the throne. A murderer dying in his bed. A thief in the woods. An advisor who knows her name. At the same time, Beatryce discovered a cadre of strange and wonderful friends, in the midst of terrible times. A bee. A boy. An ex-king. And truly, no one can stand in the way of a goat, when it has a girl to protect.
It sounds so dull to declare that children must, if only on occasion, be given books with beautiful words and turns of phrase in them, so that they may have something with which to feed their multiplying little gray cells. And certainly this book has a penchant for a nicely turned phrase. When a true baddie is on the page you get words like “twisted” and “oily”. To hold a seahorse is, “light, so light that it felt as if she were holding someone else’s dream cupped in her hand.” On a beautiful day, “The grass was high and the sky was very blue, blue enough to break your heart in two.” Secrets, “are trouble and that trouble has a very long tail.” The goat’s head is, “as solid and warm as a stone on a summer afternoon.” Good lines are the expectation, not the exception, in a DiCamillo book.
I suppose I’m just relaying DiCamillo’s own lines here for you because I’m hoping that even out of context you can understand their worth. But DiCamillo’s own love of letters is only half the story here. The whole reason she’s universally lauded (seriously, have you ever met anyone who can resist her talent for long?) is that she isn’t afraid to grapple with darkness. Human darkness. Unforeseen and/or uncontrollable circumstances. It is well to remember that the best children’s authors, the true greats, have all found their own unique ways of dancing with the dark. Some brush against it, some flirt with it, and some engage with it headlong to varying degrees of effect. DiCamillo? She’s more of the dancing type, I think. It’s always on the edges of your vision but her story keeps it at bay. It never succeeds in overwhelming the larger tale. And certainly there is much that could make you sad here. Slaughtered family members, children lost and alone, and callous leaders of very little brains and too much power. This book doesn’t work without an acknowledgment of the existence of misery. If it has anything in common with DiCamillo’s earlier fables, I think this is where the books of her past and the books of her present meet. She has always danced with her darkness. The Beatryce Prophecy is just playing a keener tune.
I do believe that it is a very good thing for a girl child of words to have a homicidal animal companion of some sort by her side. One of the dangers of The Beatryce Prophecy is that its scenes could easily be stolen, if one were less careful, by the goat, Answelica. Answelica, I should say, is a soul mate to a very similar guardian creature, Saracen the goose, found to be Mosca Mye’s companion in Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. In fact, should you find yourself with a child that enjoys this book particularly, it might behoove you to consider jumping ahead in time a century or two to Hardinge’s title as well. Both books love to play with words. And both books know how thoroughly satisfying it is to watch an animal of demonic rage protect a girl through thick and thin. Answelica, I should note, is in many ways a direct opposite to DiCamillo’s usual animal companions. One has a difficult time squaring the gentleness of Mercy Watson or Winn-Dixie with this goat’s capacity for malicious forethought. My mother once pointed out to me that the same puppeteer that does Big Bird on Sesame Street also does Oscar the Grouch. “It must be so cathartic to do both,” she mused. I think Answelica serves very much the same role for DiCamillo. After years of perfectly gentle animals (punctuated by the occasional gentle superhero squirrel) it is time for some venom. Some bite (literally). Some Answelica. A creature of “fierce, uncompromising love.”
There are author/artist pairings in this world so natural that when they occur for the first time you simply assume that your own memory is faulty and that they have always been together. DiCamillo and Blackall. The jacket copy of this book has had a lot of fun with their duality. It says, “From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall…” Since they had not done any books together, it would only make sense to assume that the first book they would do would not only have to be of significant importance but would fit with Blackall’s style. I say that, but aside from DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale series, it’s not hard to imagine Blackall doing most of Kate’s books. Each would benefit from the connection (and, were I an editor, I would seriously consider a new line of DiCamillo’s old books, re-released with Ms. Blackall’s art).
So why has Ms. Blackall decided to work on The Beatryce Prophecy? Well, several ideas come to mind. I don’t know the whole of Sophie’s career but I don’t remember her doing much with the Middle Ages in Europe before. We all know that she loves her research too. As such, surely the lure of illuminating her own manuscript was too strong to resist. And it works. Her images serve as an almost eerily perfect complement to DiCamillo’s text. In an interview with the Growing Readers Podcast about her work on this book, I sadly didn’t find any information from Ms. Blackall on her research, but she did say something about the role of the illustrator in a novel that I think is of particular interest. Says Ms. Blackall, “I always think about the person reading it [the book] and try to channel what they want to see on the page.”
But I will tell you the reason that I, personally, am glad that Sophie did this book. Again, it all comes back to Answelica (I told you that goat would steal the show if you let her – she’s practically stealing this review!). Goats in children’s literature are rarely portrayed accurately. It all comes down to their eyes. Humans have a devil of a time coming to terms with horizontal pupils. So if you see a book for kids, I swear that 90% of the time, whether it’s about a goat or an octopus or a frog, the pupils are rounded out. Not so here. In this book Answelica benefits the most when Blackall not only gives her those eyeballs, but also has added some hanging teeth. The effect is deliciously unnerving. Not since Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books have horizontal pupils truly gotten their day in the sun.
When you think about it, DiCamillo sort of began her career with books that read more like fables than fantasies. In time, she would transition into a remarkable kind of realism that honed her gifts and talents. To be honest, I was never the biggest fan of her fable period, but when her feet are firmly planted on the ground there is no one to match her. You can detect echoes of her past books swimming in the margins of The Beatryce Prophecy too. Here you can glimpse the dungeons of Despereaux. Over there is a farmyard, worthy of the unflappable Mercy Watson. And at the center is a friendship so unyielding and true, it smacks squarely of Bink and Golly. And there is darkness and light and good storytelling and bad men. At its heart is a girl with more smarts than the era knows what to do with and a small, very small, army of devoted friends willing to march into the jaws of danger on her behalf. There is good art. There is a bad goat. And finally there are little maple candies in different shapes that are so sweet that it’s taking all my restraint to keep from comparing them in some fashion to this title. It is, in short, a very good book, worth any kid’s time to read. And that, my dears, is the kind of book that you should probably read too.
On shelves September 28th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network