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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Jester & Fool Books PART 2

Still seeking to feel foolish—or read foolish? Now’s the time to double the fun with this  Jester & Fool Book List #2! Below, you’ll find my recommendations for Middle Grade and Young Adult novels featuring court jester characters. If you haven’t already, you can check out the first list, which highlights picture books and chapter books.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is Avi’s 2003 Newbery Award-winning Middle Grade novel of the Middle Ages. Peasant-boy Crispin must flee a murderous steward and unravel the mysteries of his own parentage, while mentored by Bear, a traveling juggler. Nameless at the start of the novel, Crispin, with Bear’s help, gains the confidence needed to assert his own identity and freedom.


Crispin & Bear

Avi portrays fourteenth-century England as vivid and complex, though he remarkably uses only 260 pages. We are thrust into Crispin’s flee-or-die peril early on and the pace remains quick. This is not epic fantasy in scope, but it is efficient and engaging, and children who read modern fantasy will feel at home with the trope of an orphan searching for answers about his family’s past. Additionally, the smaller scope allows Avi to focus on moments of tenderness, tension, and humor between Crispin and Bear, and this father-son-style relationship is the novel’s heart. Bear’s main function as a jester is to question tyranny—a theme true to the author’s heart, which children also encountered in his classic for younger readers, Poppy.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead has two sequels: Crispin at the Edge of the World and Crispin: The End of Time.

Song of the Gargoyle by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The late Zilpha Keatley Snyder, author of The Egypt Game, strives to dispel overly-romantic notions of knights by foregrounding a young jester hero in her historical fantasy Song of the Gargoyle.

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Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1927-2014)

Set in a fictional, medieval European kingdom, thirteen year-old Tymmon must flee when his court jester father is kidnapped before his eyes by mysterious knights. While hiding in the forest, Tymmon befriends Troff, a dog-like gargoyle enchanted into life. Tymmon becomes a wandering musician, with Troff providing howling accompaniments.

Best suited for Middle Grades, the novel dates itself a bit by lacking the pacing and political intensity of most contemporary children’s fantasy. After the opening kidnapping scene, the plot of the novel slows considerably, though the humorous and loyal Troff draws the reader along. In the final third of the novel, the plot is re-energized and the stakes broaden: Tymmon takes responsibility for two peasant children and confronts his father’s captors with the threat of his home kingdom’s conquest imminent.

Having initially resented his father for abandoning the knight’s life to become a jester, Tymmon learns the pleasures and the power of his father’s profession. Fittingly, Tymmon and Troff use music, not bloody confrontation, to resolve the climax, an important lesson for helping children understand the power of the arts.

Mimus by Lilli Thal

German author and medieval historian Lilli Thal creates an engrossing YA medieval fantasy in Mimus. When Prince Florin and his father King Philip are captured by their arch-enemy King Theodo, Florin is forced to apprentice under Theodo’s court jester, Mimus, and must play the fool if he wants to keep his father alive.

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The plot sets life-or-death stakes in the opening chapters and keeps its foot on the pedal all the way to the castle-shattering, sword-clanging climax. The novel is a coming-of-age story for thirteen year-old Florin, whose experience as a jester helps him appreciate the lot of servants, scullions, and others of lesser rank. Ultimately, however, it is the old jester Mimus who steals the show with his masterful political manipulation and enormous array of mocking rhymes. His alternating ruthlessness and tenderness for Florin reflect his conflicting pride and bitterness for his station in life. In the end, Mimus’ actions show us the courage and importance of so-called fools. Thal’s other characters are likewise complex: Florin’s royal father guards a dishonourable secret and King Theodo, though merciless to his enemies, is an admirable father and husband.

Bursting with jokes, wit, and detail without deflating the suspense, the only disappointment YA readers are likely to express is that there is no sequel. All the same, Mimus is a tremendously satisfying standalone.

Queen’s Own Fool by Robert J. Harris & Jane Yolen

Renowned Jane Yolen partners with Robert J. Harris on Queen’s Own Fool—a YA novel that could get kids hooked on historical fiction. Nicola Ambruzzi, a young performer, is taken in by Mary Queen of Scots as her personal fool. The book covers vast terrain in France and Scotland, and spans Nicola’s whole adolescence to the edge of adulthood, but it never loses its sense of intimacy, thanks to the fierce loyalty that grows between Nicola and Queen Mary.

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Scottish history provides plenty of peril, allies, and opponents for Nicola. While there is no single over-arching plotline, each new challenge propels the reader from one chapter to the next.

Nicola is an engaging protagonist whose wit will win over teen readers even in the opening chapters when her character is still a child. Her intense friendship with Queen Mary inspires moments of admirable courage, yet leaves her afraid to question the queen’s faults at key moments. She is physically daring, but more Hermione than Katniss—smarts and creativity are her best weapon in Yolen and Harris’ world, which portrays the harsh violence of the era in a manner that is thankfully more compelling than blatantly gruesome.

The powerful friendships and do-or-die intrigue in Queen’s Own Fool will captivate boy and girl readers alike and could spur many on to an interest in this period of Scottish history.

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