Picture books aren’t just for little kids! Picture books are every bit as enjoyable—and beneficial—for middle school kids. Use one (or all) of the books below to bring the Middle Ages to life for your middle schoolers. Check your local library for titles; you might need to get some of the older titles through inter-library loan, but all should be available in some form.
Unless otherwise noted, these books really are best reserved for middle school students (ages 10 and up). These books contain more material—and more mature material—than your average picture book.
Medieval Picture Books for Middle School
The Adventures of Marco Polo by Russell Freedman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Arthur A. Levine, 2006. 64 pages.
Freedman’s biographies and nonfiction picture books are robust, packed with information and helpful visuals. The Adventures of Marco Polo follows suit with period artwork and maps. Ibatoulline’s illustrations fit the time period well, enhancing the whole. Freedman makes clear distinctions between what we “know” and what we don’t know about Marco Polo’s famous travels. Introductory and concluding chapters help readers understand historiography as well as Marco Polo and his times: how do we know what really happened all those years ago? It’s a bit like being a historical scientist.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams. Candlewick, 2007. 48 pages.
Marcia Williams’s distinctive cartoon style isn’t for everyone, but she certainly packs her retellings with helpful information. Her version of Chaucer’s tales includes 9 of the original stories as well as a version of the Prologue. Snippets of Middle English are included throughout, providing a great introduction to both the English of Chaucer’s day as well as nodding to Chaucer’s significant accomplishment: he was instrumental in establishing English as a suitable language for literature (as opposed to French or Latin). High school students will also enjoy this as a prequel to studying Chaucer for themselves.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 2007. 96 pages.
An excellent companion to a study of The Canterbury Tales or Medieval village life in general, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! brings multiple characters to life through individual poetic monologues (and a few dialogues). Byrd’s illustrations are a perfect complement, and margin notes offer helpful definitions and explanations of more obscure Medieval references and customs. Schlitz also includes several explanatory full-length pages throughout on various Medieval customs and traditions. Considerations: There are several instances of God’s name in this book in various contexts, all of which are “authentic” to the time period, including prayers and oaths.
Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Khephra Burns and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Gulliver Books, 2001. 56 pages.
Mansa Musa was one of Mali’s most famous kings. He was also the first sub-Saharan king of note to make it to the Middle East. His pilgrimage to Mecca caused such a stir that multiple accounts from different places note it. Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali tells of Mansa Musa’s childhood in legendary terms. The Dillons’ illustrations are stunning and vibrant. Highly recommended.
Anselm of Canterbury by Simonetta Carr and illustrated by Matt Abraxas. Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. 64 pages.
Anselm was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by William II—son of William the Conqueror. He served through William’s lifetime and his son, Henry I. What a tumultuous time for church and state! Anselm’s life overlapped key moments in church history, and his thoughts on the doctrine of Christ and his atoning sacrifice for our sin made its way into the Reformers’ documents as well. Period artwork, timeline, and helpful background information on the Medieval church are included. Part of the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, this book is accessible to younger students, too.
Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction by David Macaulay. HMH Books for Young Readers, 1973. 80 pages.
Cathedral is a gold standard book. No other book on cathedrals for young people quite compares. Students pore over Macaulay’s pen and ink illustrations even more than his text. His Castle is also worth examining, but Cathedral is in a class by itself. Cathedral and Castle have both been recently redone in color, but they are not simply colored versions of the originals. Rather, Macaulay drew new artwork that mimics his original, but is more in the style of some of his newer works (not quite as detailed). The newer versions are likely in your local library, but the older versions are worth tracking down. They may also still be in many libraries.
Joan of Arc by Diane Stanley. Morrow Junior, 1998. 48 pages.
Joan of Arc is particularly interesting to students because she died while still a teenager. She was a remarkable and controversial leader while still a young woman. Stanley’s stunning illustrations are reminiscent of Medieval manuscripts, much like Ibatoulline’s illustrations in the Marco Polo title above. A full page of (small print) text faces each full page illustration. As with her other biographies, Stanley includes plenty of information about Joan of Arc’s time period as well as Joan herself, beginning with Joan’s childhood. See also Stanley’s biography Saladin for another Medieval era figure (Saladin was one of the Islamic leaders during the Crusades, and Stanley’s illustrations in this book will appear more Middle Eastern than those in Joan of Arc).
What books about the Middle Ages do you recommend for middle school? Let us know in the comments!
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