You’re probably scratching your head wondering why I’ve mentioned Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a discussion of children’s literature. And if so, your confusion is well founded. No, I don’t believe The Canterbury Tales is a children’s book, but The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is a beautiful middle grade novel that evokes the spirit of Canterbury.
In full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read The Canterbury Tales in completion, but I have read several of the tales. Here’s a quick background. The tales, many of which are written in verse, are a collection of stories that pilgrims share on their journey from London to Canterbury.
The Inquisitor’s Tale draws from this concept, but with a delightful twist. As in Canterbury, there are several storytellers, each with unique voices and points of view, but in this book they are providing pieces of the same tale. Set in thirteenth century France, the Inquisitor is assembling these stories to create a full narrative of three children, their holy dog, and their adventures.
Perhaps most remarkable, The Inquisitor’s Tale manages to feature Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and mysticism in a respectful way, without placing preference. Each of the children comes from diverse backgrounds. William’s parents are a crusading father and Muslim mother. He never knew his mother and has grown up in the care of a monastery, but his overall appearance is startling to the predominantly Caucasian medieval French population. Jeanne (who the author named after Joan of Arc) is a peasant who has visions. Jacob is a Jewish boy who fled after a hate crime burned down his village and killed his parents. As to be expected, the children are first skeptical of one another, but they come to rely on each other, and eventually develop a deep friendship.
The Inquisitor’s Tale is a fresh story for kids, set in a time period and dealing with issues often overlooked in children’s literature. Gidwitz spent years researching, with help from his wife who happens to be a professor of medieval history. Illuminations, drawn by Hatem Aly, enhance the story in the same way illuminations would have been added to medieval manuscripts.
The Inquisitor’s Tale would be a wonderful supplement to medieval studies, though the story is enjoyable on its own as well. Gidwitz provides several pages of his own historical commentary and a bibliography that includes sources appropriate for both kids and adults. The publisher recommends this book for ages 10 and up, which I agree with, but I do think it would be more appreciated by a reader at least 12 years old.