Tuesday, January 7, 2014


The Secret World of Hildegard
By Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Arthur Levine Books (Picture Book Biography), 2007

To celebrate the upcoming publication of of my YA novel about Hildegard of Bingen, I'm highlighting another book that tells the story of the recently named saint and Doctor of the Church. Mother and son team Jeanette and Jonah Winter have created a terrific picture book that introduces Hildegard to very young readers. As a Hildegard scholar, I love this book.

Let me tell you a bit about Hildegard first. Hildegard was a prophetic woman of many talents. She was a Benedictine nun and then an abbess who lived in the 12th century kingdom of Germany when women had no voice at all. After an unbelievable childhood of seclusion at a monastery, she dared to share visions she felt were from God at the risk of being named a heretic. But the pope blessed her visions, and Hildegard went on to become a writer, composer, artist, scientist, natural healer and preacher. Without the pope’s approval, she would have had no voice in that time and would have remained unknown. Her writings helped shape Christian doctrine; she founded the first independent woman’s monastery; she composed the largest body of 12th century music; and in 2012, Pope Benedict named her a Saint and a Doctor of the Church.

The Secret World of Hildegard is a clever and historically accurate telling of Hildegard’s story. Jonah Winter used snippets of biblical construction to frame Hildegard’s story for the youngest readers. Phrases like “And lo” and “Now it came to pass” repeat throughout the text, linking this story to the grand epic of the Bible. Echoes of the creation story in Genesis show up in this repeated sentence:

And there was grayness
and silence and sorrow,
though a light shone brightly inside her.

How appropriate for the story of a woman who devoted her life to serving God!

Throughout, the author presents Hildegard’s life and the concept of her visions in a very accessible manner. The subject matter is spiritual, but young children do have big questions about God. They will relate to this amazing historical figure because her story begins as a child – one who was sent away to a monastery where she would be safe and have the greatest chance for survival. One half of the book relates Hildegard’s unique childhood. The other half presents her adult life and her many accomplishments and contributions to her world and to ours.

Jeanette Winter’s illustrations are a visual feast. Her color palette is bold, and she designed the book in the style of a medieval illuminated manuscript. Each illustration is framed with an arched border. It seems we are looking through a window at Hildegard’s life. One of my favorite illustrations shows Hildegard emerging from seclusion. She carries her candle, symbolizing the light she will come to share with the world.

Another illustration interprets one of Hildegard’s visions of the universe surrounded with creative energy and Jesus at the center.

This book earned starred reviews from both Kirkus and Booklist. It is
a New York Public Library Best Book for Reading and Sharing.

The Secret World of Hildegard is a gem and the perfect introduction to Hildegard for young readers. I hope as older readers they will one day want to read my fictional version of Hildegard’s story in Feathers and Trumpets, A Story of Hildegard of Bingen,coming this spring from Apprentice Shop Books.

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