One of three recipients of this year’s Newbery Honor from the Association for Library Service to Children, widely considered to be the most distinguished award in children’s literature, is none other than Adam Gidwitz, a Baltimore native and alumnus of The Park School.
Gidwitz will be honored in a ceremony on June 25 in Chicago for his most recent novel, “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog.”
Gitdwitz, 34, describes the book as “a quest narrative about three kids, each with a miraculous ability. There is a peasant girl with visions of the future, a young monk-in-training with incredible strength and a boy with the power to heal people’s wounds.”
Fantastical elements aside, many of the ideas and events depicted in the novel are drawn from Gidwitz’s real-life experiences. His inspiration came while traveling Europe with his wife, Lauren Mancia, a professor in medieval history, for her research. He explains that coming across incredible stories and pieces of history that he would never have encountered otherwise prompted him to weave a tale based around these untold stories.
Beyond the basic plot, Gidwitz addresses a variety of contemporary issues and wrote the novel from a more analytical standpoint as “an interreligious narrative about a Christian monk, a peasant girl and a Jewish boy, all of whom have very different ideas about faith and ideology, and how they become friends despite their world views.”
The monk is also of African descent, and his mother is a Muslim woman from Spain, said Gidwitz. He wanted the novel to reflect “how we live in a religiously diverse world and deal with the crises that come out of the clash and interaction of these religions.”
This religious theme is apparent throughout the novel. “The first half of the book is about the three kids together being pursued by the church because it doesn’t believe in these miracles and wants to determine whether they are false saints,” said Gidwitz.
However, he did not have a climax for the book until he visited the Jewish Museum in Paris. He and his wife came across a small plaque that explained that the museum had no medieval Jewish manuscripts because in 1242, King Louis IX gathered every Talmud in France and burned them in the center of Paris.
“Reading that plaque felt like being kicked between the legs,” said Gidwitz. “I knew that I had the great problem for my new book.” The second half of the novel tells of how these three children meet and befriend King Louis IX, only to discover that he is planning on burning all of the Talmud, and they decide to stop him.
Dan Paradis, Park’s head of school, believes Gidwitz’s achievement really speaks to the kind of academic culture that the school tries to perpetuate, challenging kids to think in new and innovative ways.
“If you look in ‘The Inquisitor’s Tale,’ it is steeped in medieval history,” said Paradis. “It has a very historic context that required he really become a scholar of the time period, and I think that’s a perfect example of how our learning is rooted in the world, in history and in all different disciplines.”
Gidwitz returns to the school on April 13 as the Gordon Berman ’68 Memorial Lower School Resident Author.
Part of Gidwitz’s passion for history and religion comes from his Jewish upbringing. He grew up as a member Har Sinai Congregation and vowed to continue his religious education after becoming a bar mitzvah. However, he did not want to continue attending Sunday school.
Instead, Gidwitz came to an agreement with his father that he did not have to attend Sunday school on the condition that he read the Bible every Sunday and they would discuss it together, fulfilling his obligation at home instead of in temple. “That became a really important touchstone for my religious education,” he said. “I was learning about this tradition and then turning around and discussing it. I learned to take the moral and religious lessons seriously.”
He also asserted that Park had an incredible influence on him, citing his librarian and fellow Newbery honoree Laura Amy Schlitz as an amazing storyteller and inspiration.
“I would love to believe I’ve been helpful to Adam,” she said. “We grumble together, as writers do — but the work, the ideas, the heart, is 100 percent his. His readers sense his deep respect for them, and that knowledge leads to a special intimacy.”
Schlitz believes that Gidwitz is such a successful author of children’s literature because he is a child at heart. He writes for his readers, rather than for himself.
“The Park School is a place where literature and creativity are highly valued,” said Gidwitz.
“Our creations were always valued more highly than the grades we were getting.
“I was never a writer as a kid,” he continued. “An author came to Park and someone asked, ‘How do you know you’re a good writer?’ And she said, ‘Writers write.’ I remember clearly that day in seventh grade when I decided I wasn’t a writer. But I played a lot, imagined all the time and probably told more fibs than was good for me. Now, I embellish the truth until it seems like a good story.”