These are the opening lines of The Secret World of Hildegard, a picture book biography of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Jeannette Winter (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007):
Hundreds and hundreds of years ago in a time known as the Middle Ages, men ruled over the earth. And these men were very gray. And the buildings they built were very gray. And all the towns were very gray. And all the gray towns were run by mayors who were men. Girls were not allowed to go to school, and most girls could not read. They were taught to serve and obey all the boys around them. They were taught to keep quiet and to be very gray.
Is this an accurate description of the Middle Ages? Is it how most people imagine them (not my former students, I hope)? Or does it function as a dramatic device, as the Horn Book's review (available here) suggests; one that allows the Winters to "set the scene perfectly: out of the dark, gray world of the Middle Ages shines the radiant light of visionary Hildegard." Is it acceptable (if also, I would argue, overly generalizing and negative in the extreme) for a nonfiction picture book?
I'm a medievalist. I would have loved this small square volume (I, or rather my kids, are probably its intended audience): Jonah Winter's writing is simple and elegant; Jeannette Winter's illuminations, done in acrylic and pen on watercolor paper, manage to be both medieval and modern (and gorgeous). There is a good author's note expanding on Hildegard's fame as a scientist and composer as well as a mystic visionary; and a bibliography. If I could only get past the first page.