Newbery 1996

This winner is set in 14th century mediaeval England. In a sense that fact is immaterial in terms of the story. What the setting does offer is a wonderful reason for using delightful, varied and unusual vocabulary. I marked many passages of beautiful writing reminiscent of the period setting yet deeply adding to the depth of the story. The Author’s note at the end was just what I wanted as I completed the book as it answered many of my puzzles as I read.

The central character Beetle is ‘needed by no one’ at one point. Gradually, glimmerings of self belief appear in response to the actions of other characters. At one point she is given a comb that she has much coveted. However it was given with a wink and a compliment and although ‘she did not know it, they were also gifts, and they nestled in Beetle’s heart and stayed there’. Wondrously, Beetle then begins to share what she learns along her journey and others begin to value her. She is painted as a kind and humble character and the fruit of those traits becomes increasingly evident. Beetle continues to learn from her experiences and in doing so is able to give increasingly of herself. Naturally she comes up against events that mean she loses faith in herself, yet even then the reader learns that the friendship and loyalty she has shown is repaid and proffers great comfort.

The main question the story poses is found towards the end when she is asked by Magister Reese ‘And what, inn girl, do you want of life?’ By the end she discovers for herself the great truth of life and through her actions she gives Edward (a small waif) the self confidence and skills he had previously lacked – and so the circle is continued.

An excellent and very satisfying read with themes ranging from success to failure, perseverance, life long learning, hope and compassion. This was well deserving of the Newbery Medal award and would be delightful to read aloud.