Back-to-school days always makes me wistful. It will probably come as little surprise to hear that the days I spent nosing around the shelves or reading while nestled in a bean-bag chair at my school’s library were among the most halcyon I can remember.
So it’s with school days and book reports in mind that I highly recommend Mary Tudor: Courageous Queen or Bloody Mary? by Jane Buchanan. It’s among the latest in Scholastic’s “A Wicked History” series, an excellent line-up of biographies of historical figures tailored to a ‘tween audience.
Despite the incendiary cover (this one is stamped with a bloody “LETHAL”), Mary Tudor is in fact a balanced, informative and highly readable account of the second (if you count Lady Jane Grey) reigning queen in England’s early modern history.
Buchanan is successful because she does that thing so key to good biography: she humanizes Mary Tudor through good, plain storytelling. Even adult readers are likely to discover things they didn’t know about “Bloody” Mary — like that she loved to play the virginal, a sort of miniaturized harpsichord and was very musical like her father; or that she was engaged, at age two-and-a-half, to France’s Prince Francis. (In an elaborate ceremony, the toddler kissed the Lord Admiral of France solemnly on the cheek, thinking the messenger her betrothed.)
Things of course do turn bloody when Mary takes the throne in 1553 and commences burning heretics for the good of England’s soul. But even in her decline, Buchanan manages to muster sympathy for Queen Mary. She doesn’t shrink from Mary’s phantom pregnancy, and, on balance, does a fine job laying out the major players during this treacherous time without saddling the narrative with confusing detail. In other words, it’s clear who Martin Luther is, and Archbishop Cranmer, but they don’t distract from Mary Tudor’s story.
What’s more, the style is crisp and simple, and according to Scholastic’s site, the vocabulary is controlled. I also like the selection of portraiture and overall design of the book. The timeline and glossary should be especially useful to younger readers.
Other notorious ne’er-do-wells in the series include Genghis Khan, Robespierre, Vlad the Impaler, and forthcoming next month: Henry VIII: Royal Beheader. I can hardly wait.