Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Tuesday, July 13, 2021: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Beatryce Prophecy

Candlewick Press: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Candlewick Press: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Candlewick Press: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Candlewick Press: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Beatryce Prophecy

by Kate DiCamillo, illus. by Sophie Blackall

In The Beatryce Prophecy, the talents of two-time Newbery medalist Kate DiCamillo and two-time Caldecott medalist Sophie Blackall combine to create an unforgettable medieval epic that illustrates the magical and myriad ways that love and stories change the world. Delightfully unexpected allies find profound connection through a common belief in the importance of compassion, even in the face of evil.

The narrative hinges on a prophecy: "There will one day come a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change." Some people desire to bend the prophesy to their own will while others simply wish to be part of the story.

The mysterious appearance of a girl "not more than ten years old" in the barn of the monks of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing is the spark that ignites The Beatryce Prophecy. The monks are the keepers and authors of the Chronicles, which "tell the story of what has happened and of things that might yet happen, those things which have been prophesied." Brother Edik is both a prophesier and an illuminator of the "glorious golden letters that begin the text of each page of the Chronicles." One morning, late to feed the hard-headed and wily monastery goat, Brother Edik discovers that the beast is curled protectively around a small, dirty, feverish child with bloodied feet. The girl eventually wakes from her illness with the memory of her name--Beatryce--but nothing else. While Brother Edik is inexplicably moved by the child, wishing only to nurse her back to health, his superiors are not so beguiled, especially when they learn the shocking and illegal fact that she, a girl, can read and write. "In the whole of the world--from the great sea that Brother Edik had never laid eyes on but knew existed, to the dark mountains that Brother Edik had heard described--there was only a handful of people who could read." Those allowed to read are monks, scholars, counselors to the king and the king himself, males all. The monks of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing want this strange child gone as soon as possible.

An orphan boy named Jack Dory shows up at the monastery on an errand to find a monk who can write a record of a soldier's wartime crimes so that the man may "have some forgiveness" before he dies. The brothers send Beatryce--head shaved, dressed in robes--masquerading as a monk. Their fervent hope is that she will never return. The two children, each bereft of family, embark (along with the fiercely protective goat, Answelica) on an adventure none--except, perhaps, gentle, heartbroken Brother Edik--could have foretold.

It's the people (goats included in that description) that elevate The Beatryce Prophecy to a lofty literary order. Each character's story darts inexorably toward the others, pulled by threads of trust, power, love and loss. Told from the alternating points of view of Beatryce, Jack Dory and Brother Edik, the tale also features an oily tutor-turned-king's counselor, a false king, a hermit in the woods and a noblewoman in a dungeon. Interjections in bold print provide a "meanwhile, back in the castle" perspective, offering glimpses into the maneuverings of the insecure king and his villainous counselor. Hearing his counselor recite the prophecy as a warning to the monarchy, the king asks, "But it is a prophecy. Does that not mean it is destined to come true? Should we interfere with fate?" The counselor answers, "Do not doubt. Small men doubt. Kings do not doubt. And you are a king."

Blackall (Hello Lighthouse; Finding Winnie) uses real and digital pencils to make wondrous black-and-white illustrations that will wedge a space for themselves in readers' memories, like Charlotte holding baby Wilbur or James looking at the giant peach. Spot art depicts a satchel filled with candle, flint and maple candies in the shape of flowers and stars and birds; another shows a curious Jack Dory, his body curved against a tree root, gazing at the design embedded in the hilt of his sword; another has serious, bald-headed, monk-robed Beatryce looking straight at the reader. Trees feature heavily in Blackall's illustrations, hundreds of lines showing the patterns of bark and twist of the trunk, and spreads are sometimes framed with leaves. Medieval garb is simply drawn, evoking rough fabrics and plain lines. Most evocative are the faces: innocent but troubled Beatryce; baffled, injured Brother Edik; and intelligent Answelica, mischief in her eyes.

With her trademark lyrical language and flair for storytelling, DiCamillo (Flora & Ulysses; Because of Winn-Dixie) writes like a patient knitter untangling a ball of yarn as she knits. Themes of love, grief, justice and identity loop together, interlocking as each character finds their way. Throughout Beatryce's own journey, two mysterious, barely remembered lines keep emerging from the depths of her past: "We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home." Brother Edik, struggling mightily his entire life with the words of his cruel father in his head, mocking his wandering eye and tender ways, is finally able to ask of himself this rhetorical question: "And shouldn't home be the place where you are allowed to be yourself, loved as yourself?" Yes, Brother Edik. Indeed, it should. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $19.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 8-12, 9781536213614, September 28, 2021

Candlewick Press: The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Kate DiCamillo: Capturing the Beauties and Terrors of the World

(photo: Catherine Smith)

Kate DiCamillo, with almost 37 million books in print worldwide--including The Tale of Despereaux, Flora & Ulysses (both of which received Newbery Medals) and Because of Winn-Dixie (a Newbery Honor book)--is both prolific and beloved. She served as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, appointed by the Library of Congress.

The first draft of The Beatryce Prophecy (Candlewick Press, September 28, 2021), an illustrated middle-grade novel about a medieval heroine's quest for truth, family and home, languished in DiCamillo's office closet for a decade. DiCamillo discovered it one day while cleaning and decided to resuscitate it. Countless readers may never know how close we came to not meeting the girl who wasn't supposed to read, the brave, visionary monk who cherished beauty and kindness above all else and the most aggressively loyal goat in the world. Thank goodness for housecleaning!

The Beatryce Prophecy opens with the fierce, intelligent, growling, biting goat, Answelica, who rapidly becomes one of the heroines of the story. Where, oh where did she come from (imagination-wise)? 

I've gone back through all my old notebooks, searching for a good answer to this question... and guess what? I don't know. All I can tell you is that her name arrived first (I found the word "Answelica" written next to the word "monk" and the word "moon" in a notebook). I followed the name and found a goat. It's not unusual for me to start a story with just a name; it is unusual for such a ferocious, funny, hard-headed, loving creature to spring forth from so few letters. It's one of the joys of writing, when the character shows up like that.

In Beatryce's world, writing and reading are forbidden for everyone but monks and kings and counselors. Why is writing still so powerful, so potentially dangerous?

I struggled a little bit, learning to read. And when that door finally opened to me, I remember being dazzled by the light, and thinking, "Nothing, nothing can stop me now."

The written word empowers the individual.

The brothers of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing are a gloomy lot, penning "beheadings and treachery and war and prophecies of doom and suffering." But they also see and create beauty when they illuminate the letters in the Chronicles or when they make maple candies in the shape of flowers and birds. How is your work like the work of these monks?

Oh, I love this question. Because that's it, isn't it? That's the whole challenge of storytelling: to tell the truth about the world, to capture its beauties and its terrors, to make something light (illuminated letters) and sweet (maple candies) even in the darkness.

What (if any) role does feminism play in The Beatryce Prophecy?

I write, as a writing teacher once told me, behind my own back. Which is to say that feminism does play a role (a big role) in this story, but I did not sit down intending to write a feminist tale. I worked to tell a story about friendship and the redeeming power of love and stories. It was only after I was done and other people started to read and comment on the story that I could see the feminist themes--the empowerment that happens when we are encouraged to find out exactly who we can be in the world, without other people telling us that we can't, we won't, we shouldn't.

The setting in The Beatryce Prophecy is so evocative. Were you picturing any one place in today's world?

Writing the book for me was so often like trying to remember a dream. I didn't have any particular place in mind, I was just trying to capture the light and contours of that dream.

Beatryce is on a heroine's journey, but her companions Jack Dory, Cannoc, Brother Edik and perhaps even the goat Answelica, have their own Odyssean quests along the way. Did you mean to do that all along or did they demand it of you?

I mean to do nothing all along. Which is to say that I, the teller of the tale, don't know what's going on. All I know is that I, too, am on a journey. And I feel lucky that I got to journey with these characters.  

Do you believe that we must act to make our fate come true, as the false king claimed? 

I think that maybe the most important thing we can do to become ourselves, to make our fate come true, is to pay attention--to other hearts, to our own hearts.  

Do you have a favorite Sophie Blackall illustration in the book?  

Sophie's art is miraculous. I love all of it. But there is a two-page spread showing Beatryce being spirited away by the king's men while above her a story unfolds in the sky--that piece of art makes my heart skip a beat every time I see it.

Did this pandemic year change your writing routine or what or how you write? 

I wrote more during the pandemic. I was home more and that gave me the chance to write. And I felt grateful for the calming, centering process of telling a story.

What are you working on now?

I've been having a good time telling fairy tales recently.

Anything else you'd like to tell the readers of Shelf Awareness

Yes: Thank you. Thank you to everyone who reads books, everyone who reads a story aloud to someone, everyone who puts a book in someone else's hands. --Emilie Coulter

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