with Teri Mark­son

Adam Gid­witz and Hatem Aly’s new book The Inquisitor’s Tale recent­ly won The Syd­ney Tay­lor Award in the Old­er Read­ers Cat­e­go­ry and was named a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Final­ist for Children’s Lit­er­a­ture and a New­bery Hon­or Book. Jew­ish Book Coun­cil talked to the writer-illus­tra­tor team to dis­cuss the book and their approach­es to cre­at­ing com­pelling lit­er­a­ture for young Jew­ish readers. 

Teri Mark­son: In addi­tion to receiv­ing many starred reviews and acco­lades, The Inquisitor’s Tale has won the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award in the Old­er Read­ers cat­e­go­ry and was a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Yet the book isn’t sin­gu­lar­ly focused on the Jew­ish char­ac­ter or Judaism itself. How do you account for the reac­tion from the Jew­ish community?

Adam Gid­witz: This has been one of the most sat­is­fy­ing ele­ments of the recog­ni­tion The Inquisitor’s Tale has received. It’s always a dan­ger­ous propo­si­tion to try to explain why some­one likes your work, but I think the over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive reac­tion from the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty derives from at least two sources:

So much of the children’s lit­er­a­ture fea­tur­ing Jew­ish char­ac­ters that receives nation­al atten­tion con­cerns the Holo­caust. But Jew­ish his­to­ry is so much rich­er than that! Jews have been writ­ing and learn­ing and pray­ing and invent­ing for, by our count, over five mil­len­nia. I think peo­ple are appre­ci­at­ing a rich and detailed account of a peri­od oth­er than the Holo­caust — an account that describes a very dif­fer­ent kind of per­se­cu­tion of Jews; and also fea­tures and cel­e­brates one of the great accom­plish­ments of Jew­ish cul­ture: the Talmud.

Sec­ond­ly, in all lit­er­a­ture — and espe­cial­ly lit­er­a­ture for chil­dren — bad guys are usu­al­ly stereo­typ­i­cal­ly bad, and good guys are per­fect­ly good. This is exag­ger­at­ed in cas­es of per­se­cu­tion, such as the per­se­cu­tion of Jews. In The Inquisitor’s Tale, I tried to depict the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty with some com­plex­i­ty — we’re def­i­nite­ly not all sages and saints — and, more cru­cial­ly, I tried to por­tray the per­se­cu­tor, King Louis IX, with real­is­tic com­plex­i­ty. Louis was so beloved that he was saint­ed, and has a major Amer­i­can city named after him. Hav­ing read a num­ber of sources on him, includ­ing crit­i­cal sources, I under­stand why: he was in many ways a won­der­ful king and a won­der­ful man. But he was also vicious­ly anti-Jew­ish. How could he be both? He said he hat­ed the Jews, and sup­pos­ed­ly claimed he would hap­pi­ly see a Jew stabbed in the stom­ach, yet he large­ly pro­hib­it­ed vio­lence against them in his king­dom, unlike oth­er mon­archs of his time. Humans are com­plex, and my goal was to depict them in all their com­plex glo­ry. Why would this appeal to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty? You know what they say: two Jews, three opin­ions? We rev­el in complexity. 

TM: One of the pro­tag­o­nists in the book, William, is bira­cial, of both African and Euro­pean descent. How like­ly would it have been for that to have hap­pened in the Mid­dle Ages? 

AG: It was cer­tain­ly rare to see some­one with brown skin in North­ern France in the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, mixed race or not. But there was a great deal of cul­tur­al inter­ac­tion, in all sens­es, along the cul­tur­al bor­ders of Europe: in the Mid­dle East, along the edges of the Byzan­tine Empire, and in Spain. My char­ac­ter William is based in part on Guil­hem d’Orange, a ninth-cen­tu­ry Paul Bun­yan-type fig­ure who fought to take Spain from its Mus­lim rulers. I cer­tain­ly didn’t like the idea of a reli­gious war­rior as the star of my book — it would defeat the whole intent of the sto­ry — so I thought that it would be inter­est­ing to focus on one of the lit­tle-talked-about (and, frankly, iron­ic) prod­ucts of this reli­gious war: a child of both sides. 

TM: Many of the details in your book are based on your exten­sive research into the his­to­ry and lore of the Mid­dle Ages. What do you find most com­pelling about this era?

AG: The Mid­dle Ages is a remark­ably sur­pris­ing peri­od. I think most of us think of that time as bor­ing and homoge­nous, con­strict­ed and made igno­rant by faith. But in real­i­ty this couldn’t be far­ther from the truth! It was an age of inven­tion, of great phi­los­o­phy and archi­tec­ture, a time of cul­tur­al col­li­sion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Also, they told amaz­ing sto­ries, like ones about holy dogs, and drag­ons with dead­ly flat­u­lence. How can you not find that compelling?

TM: What kind of response have you received from chil­dren and teens who have read the book? Do you think they’re more focused on the his­to­ry or the humor?

AG: Most­ly, young peo­ple are focused on the adven­ture. The most com­pelling aspect of any nov­el is sus­pense — be it a romance, a com­e­dy, a hor­ror, what have you. Sus­pense is the engine that dri­ves a nov­el. There are cer­tain adult nov­els that eschew sus­pense, but those seem to lack an engine alto­geth­er, and most­ly ram­ble ran­dom­ly down the side of a steep hill. The sus­pense of The Inquisitor’s Tale comes in the form of adven­ture. But humor is impor­tant, too, and the big ques­tions that I pose, about his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence, make the nov­el some­thing that, I hope, young peo­ple will return to. 

TM: One of my favorite moments in the book is when Marmeluc ques­tions Jacob about what makes him a Jew. There are many instances where you have the chil­dren grap­ple with some com­plex reli­gious ideas, includ­ing the death of Jacob’s par­ents in light of God’s plan. How did you decide what was appro­pri­ate for kids?

AG: I didn’t. I have a rule for my books: they have to have hap­py end­ings, and noth­ing sex­u­al. Oth­er than that, I think kids can han­dle most any­thing. (Okay, I exclude gra­tu­itous tor­ture, too. Most­ly.) I taught ele­men­tary and high school for a com­bined eight years, and one thing I learned is that kids love hard ques­tions. Hard ques­tions moti­vate them and inspire them — not hard like tedious; hard as in chal­leng­ing the way they’ve always seen the world. Each and every kid’s job is to grow, and noth­ing helps a kid grow like ques­tions that make them recon­sid­er what they always believed. Also fart­ing drag­ons. That helps a kid grow, too. 

TM: Whose deci­sion was it to present the illus­tra­tions in the style of an illus­trat­ed man­u­script? Did you con­sid­er start­ing the chap­ters with large ornate let­ters like in some old man­u­scripts? What oth­er deci­sions did you make con­cern­ing the style?

Hatem Aly: The style or form of the book was decid­ed ear­ly on. The idea was inspired by illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, with mar­gin­a­lia specif­i­cal­ly in mind. I had thought of start­ing each chapter’s first let­ter with a small illu­mi­nat­ed char­ac­ter; then it was sug­gest­ed to work on the C’s in each Chap­ter,” which was the best (and most sen­si­ble) way to use this tech­nique for the book! The one deci­sion that I oblig­ed myself to do was ink­ing the illus­tra­tions tra­di­tion­al­ly, using a met­al nib or a plume” like in the medieval times, to keep the art­work authen­tic to the time peri­od — and have fun with the rest.

TM: Was the use of col­or con­sid­ered at any point?

HA: For the inte­ri­ors there was no inten­tion to use col­or. How­ev­er, now that I see it, I think the cur­rent form works best with the nature of the book and leaves space for imagination.

TM: Can you tell us some­thing about the process­es you used in illus­trat­ing the book?

HA:
As I read the book the first time, I start­ed sketch­ing char­ac­ters while doing some research on the time peri­od in which the sto­ry takes place, pay­ing clos­er atten­tion to the visu­al aspects of peo­ple, places, and books. I made batch­es of sketch­es and dis­cussed it with the edi­to­r­i­al team, then I revised the sketch­es with their feed­back and new research and start­ed ink­ing and final­iz­ing. I must thank Adam Gid­witz for his exper­tise on many things I would not have known — like what some cur­rent loca­tions or build­ings looked like sev­er­al cen­turies ago or how monks, peas­ants, or reg­u­lar mer­chants dressed in medieval times.

TM: Most illus­trat­ed man­u­scripts are quite for­mal, but your style is very flu­id — which works won­der­ful­ly with the humor in the book. What were you try­ing to achieve with your illustrations?

HA: Some­times lim­i­ta­tions are a great door to cre­ativ­i­ty. I used the for­mal tra­di­tion of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts and the restric­tive area of illus­tra­tive mar­gin­a­lia as an anchor that kept me in the right direc­tion; with­in those stric­tures I allowed any ideas to flow freely, know­ing that at the end it would be con­tained in the prop­er form. You could say it’s like singing a folk­lore poem in your own melody but stay­ing truth­ful to the lyrics. And that works beau­ti­ful­ly if you think the text is fan­tas­tic. In brief, I want­ed the art­work to be both fun and pas­sion­ate, like the sto­ry and char­ac­ters of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Teri Mark­son has been a children’s librar­i­an for over 18 years. She is cur­rent­ly the act­ing senior librar­i­an at the Val­ley Plaza Branch Library in North Hol­ly­wood, CA.

View Hatem Aly’s ear­ly sketch­es for The Inquisitor’s Tale:

(Click on the thumb­nails below to enlarge images and enter the slideshow.)

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Relat­ed Content:

Teri Mark­son has been a children’s librar­i­an for over 18 years. She is cur­rent­ly the act­ing senior librar­i­an at the Val­ley Plaza Branch Library in North Hol­ly­wood, CA.