I wonder just how long Gerald Morris can continue to fly under the radar? By all rights the man should be as well-known and rich as Brian Jacques and the like. His "Squire's Tales" set in the world of King Arthur are funny, smart, and harbor just the right mix of authenticity and plumb good writing. They are, however, generally written for older kids. The tween to teen market, if you will. As a children's librarian, however, I notice that it's often younger kids that are asking for King Arthur stories. Kids that are reading on their own but still need books that are around 92 rather than 350 pages to sustain their interest. Kids, basically, who just want some early chapter books about Camelot and the Round Table. Up until now I was up a tree when this sort of request wafted my way. My children's room has picture books and long chapter books and not much in between for this particular brand of reader. Now that problem has been solved and it is entirely due to an author who could not have been a better choice for this subject matter. As the first in his "Knights' Tales" series, "The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great" takes its cues from classic legends and then renders them not only readable but hilarious.
Considered the greatest of King Arthur's knights, not many kids know that Lancelot was a prince in France before he was a legend. Having heard tales of King Arthur and his knights of Camelot, Lancelot wanted nothing more than to go and be accepted as a knight. After accidentally defeating all of Arthur's knights in a tournament, Lancelot is hailed as a great warrior... which of course gives every young upstart in the territory just the excuse they need to go and attack him. Morris examines some Lancelot stories where he must defend himself in odd situations alongside tales where is tricked, does the tricking, and always continues to hold onto his ideals. By the end of these stories (there are roughly five different ones of varying length) there is little doubt left in the reader's mind as to who was the greatest knight of all.
What I like about this book is that the author has been careful to insert fun and quirky ideas that rarely interfere with the book's overall story. For example, when Lancelot accidentally wins a tournament, it's paired with the fact that he's a bit vain and likes his armor to be extra shiny. So, as he shines his armor with one hand, he defeats a series of knights that keep attacking him with the other. A goofy twist, but one that is consistent with the Lancelot personality we've encountered in other formats and texts. In an odd twist of fate my husband ended up reading Le Morte D'Arthur at the same time that I was reading Morris' book. As a result, we started to compare notes. I'd say to him,
"There's a story in here of a lady who tricks Lancelot into taking up his armor and climbing a tree!"
He would answer, "It's in this book too!"
Then, "My book has a story where Lancelot stops a guy from killing his wife. Then the guy saying, `Hey, Lancelot, look over there!' And when he does then the guy chops off his wife's head. Is that in yours?"
I consulted my own book. "Nope."
Paired with Morris is a Mr. Aaron Renier, who has drawn accompanying pen-and-ink illustrations to go with this book. Some of you may recognize his style from his Top Shelf graphic novel Spiral-Bound. Like Morris, Renier is also from Wisconsin and this Arthurian series complements his particular style perfectly. For the goofiness of some of these tales you need an illustrator with comic book sensibilities. Renier has that in spades, but he never goes too goofy. Even on a picture where Lancelot has an arrow sticking out of his tuchis, the remainder of the scene is beautifully rendered. All tall grasses and bare trees. You get the distinct sense that Renier cares about his subject matter. All the kids will care about, though, is that he makes the book more fun to read.
And it really is fun. Clearly Morris had to do a little editing before he could make this book child-friendly. Some nips and tucks, if you will. Consider, for example, the ending. It contains the sentence, "...and that was how Sir Lancelot returned to Camelot, where he remained the rest of his life, faithfully defending the defenseless, even when it interfered with his afternoon naps." Ah. Well, I can't claim to know my Arthurian lore well enough to say that there isn't a version of Lancelot's story out there somewhere where he did stay on at Camelot "the rest of his life." I do know, though, that there are bound to be several kids out there who already know the whole Lancelot/Guinevere angle, get to the end of this book, and then complain vociferously when they find it completely and utterly missing.
Gaps exist in every library collection there is, often because publishers never got around to putting out titles to fill them. Now one such a gap can be corrected, and hopefully everyone who has ever had an eight-year-old Arthur fan on their hands will note and stock Morris' latest while it remains in print. I'll certainly be looking forward to other books in this series as they come out. Exciting high-adventure for the Captain Underpants set.