Here's a book that I'm sorry to say, until it arrived in a box from the publisher, I had not even heard of. And I'm sorry I hadn't heard of it because it is wonderful and if life were fair, it would have built some good buzz by now. This just goes to prove the arbitrariness of what books get buzz and which ones run the risk of slipping quietly past. This is probably well-known in its native Australia, but it deserves some chitter-chatter here too -- and honestly, maybe it has been getting chitter-chatter; I'm not exactly "in the know."
So, The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth. Set in 1658 England, it's a fast-paced and poignant adventure story of two young Rom (gypsy) cousins trying desperately to figure out how to get their family out of jail, where they've been tossed for the crime of singing and dancing in public, and are awaiting execution. This is during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, a name that buzzed up from some deep well of my forgotten education -- perhaps your English history isn't buried as deeply as mine, but in case it is: Cromwell was a soldier who rose through the ranks and ended up becoming a regicidal dictator during a short period called the Commonwealth, when King Charles I was executed and his heir exiled.
In the book, it's portrayed as a time of staunch Protestant values -- enforced joylessness and rigidity fraught with the fear of spies and snitches, land confiscations, finger-pointing and betrayals. The gypsies are persecuted terribly, and here I think Forsyth has struck a good balance in depicting the brutality of history in a way middle-graders can digest. Violent and at times heart-breaking, the persecution is toned down but not made light of. Young Emilia and her cousin Luka are already victims when the story starts, and throughout they are hunted by a hard, cruel "crow" of a pastor and a heartless "thief-taker," and shown no mercy, though they are only children.
When their family is imprisoned, only Emilia and Luka escape -- with their dog, monkey, Arabian mare, and 600-lb. dancing bear -- and go on a journey to find their farflung kin to a) enlist their help, and b) retrieve the five gypsy charms that once hung from the same bracelet and were split apart, bringing an end to gypsy luck. As the charms are united, Emilia finds her nascent gifts as a drabardi (fortune-teller) are sharpening -- or is it, as Luka insists, merely luck? The children are forced to make heart-wrenching choices again and again, parting with the things dearest to them in the desperate effort to save everyone they love. And you really can feel, throughout, that the consequences if they fail would be dire. The book is filled with people who have lost their families and way of life, who live in fear. And yet there is levity and humor to relieve the sadness -- the animal characters are delightful, and will have kids begging for a monkey. The Rom way of life, their free spirit, their proverbs, are fascinating. Throw in a mysterious spy for the exiled prince, some colorful gypsy families, a glimpse of 17th Century London as well as the surrounding countryside, and you've got a great story.
My favorite kind of story: fast-paced, makes the page disappear as you fall right into the flow of events, and all the while, painlessly (not just painlessly, but enjoyably), you're learning stuff. Neat. Truly, there are many parallels to be made to the Cromwell era with its rigid, enforced morality and repression and intolerance, to things happening around the world today, summed up neatly by these words: ". . . we have our own way of doing things, but these pastors. . . they can't abide anyone not thinking or believing the same way they do." Yeah.
The Gypsy Crown is a Cybils nominee in the middle-grade fantasy/sci-fi category.
The cover above is the US edition; I had to photo it because the online graphics I could find were really stinky. Lovely cover, though, as are these two other editions I found pics of: