As I lay the final plans for my family’s first year of homeschooling, I have given a great deal of thought to what it is that any child needs to learn, and what I want mine to know. It is tempting to answer that question with titles of courses and subjects, and while these are necessary, none of them fully answer the question: what do I want my students to be able to do?

I want them to observe and ask questions. I want them to notice which tree’s leaves change color first, and discover why. I want them to look up the word they don’t know, and find out which bird is nesting in the barn loft. When they hear a piece of music or see a piece of art, I want them to be able to describe what is so stirring about it. I want them to research an argument and recognize a fallacy; to use language and numbers both precisely and artfully. I want them to be delighted by a honey bee.

As usual, my mental meanderings take me right back to the books that have formed these ideals in my mind. There are so, so many; and a number of them are children’s books. One leaped into my hand this morning, past my piles of notes and my cup of cold tea. Sadly I believe it is out of print now, but like all the best picture books it tells in a story what I can only attempt to describe here: Magic in the Margins: A Medieval Tale of Bookmaking by W. Nikola-Lisa and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen.

In this fanciful tale, an orphaned peasant boy named Simon is taken in by the nearby monastery and raised by the monks. He is trained to assist in the scriptorium, where he is employed making parchments, curing quills, and grinding pigments. With reverent awe he views the Psalters and Herbals and Bestiaries, and displays some talent when shown how to make letters and sketches on scraps of parchment. Simon’s dream is to be allowed to illuminate a real manuscript.

Brother William, his kindly tutor, acknowledges the boy’s skill and shows his work to the master scribe, Father Anselm. The master praises Simon’s copying ability but wants him to develop the imagination of an artist; and he gives Simon the unexpected assignment of capturing mice.

Determined to prove himself, Simon turns his mind to catching every mouse in the monastery. But he has misunderstood Father Anselm, who didn’t want him to catch mice, but capture them. When Simon realizes this, he notices one little furry intruder in the corner of the dormitory, and watches it with interest. How quickly it moves – how sleek its coat! Simon sneaks to the scriptorium and spends all night drawing that mouse in every angle, every attitude. Satisfied, he takes his work to Father Anselm.

But still Simon has not entirely understood. Disappointed, he returns to the scriptorium and leafs through Father Anselm’s own work. He marvels at the perfect lettering and vibrant paintings, those hallmarks of medieval manuscript illumination. And then he notices something else: the figures intricately hidden in the margins. A flying fish, a bear reading the Bible, a knight charging a snail: they are playful, imaginative, and fun! Simon pauses when he sees a mouse out of the corner of his eye; then he takes a quill and draws his mouse again in all sorts of whimsical postures. With his imagination now building on his technical skill, he has learned his mentor’s lesson.

With a historical note at the back, this story is a fabulous introduction to the painstaking and distinctive style of medieval manuscripts. The bright illustrations do not quite recreate this technique, but offer a simplified version and fully support the story with lots of hidden surprises. Young children will appreciate these pictures alongside the humorous narrative, while older ones can learn just how much labor once went into the creation of books to preserve information. The roles of author and artist are celebrated as those who capture the wonders of Creation and share it with others. The importance of the monks in preserving this heritage and serving local communities is also wonderfully apparent.

The Year of Our Lord 2020 has not turned out quite how most people had planned, but the privilege of raising inquisitive, thoughtful children is as valuable as ever. Whichever method proves best for furthering your family’s education this year, don’t overlook the power of books that make us pause and marvel at the splendor of even the smallest good things. Find out how your library is currently handling services, and see if you can request this title. Read with your children, teach them to discover and create, and show them that the tiniest details matter.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Simeon’s Gift by Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton, and illustrated by Gennady Spirin