First things first -- I listened to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! as an audiobook. I'm trying to give audiobooks more of a try, and this one seemed like a good candidate, given that it's a set of dramatic monologues (and two dialogues), written specifically for performance. This proved to be a good choice. The cast (Christina Moore and several others) is excellent, and the production and incidental music is tasteful and professional. If you have the opportunity, I'd highly recommend giving it a listen.
As for the book itself, it's quite good at what it does. Laura Amy Schlitz wrote it to be performed by students in her class who were learning about the Middle Ages, and the brief dramatic pieces put a human face (or faces) on a time and place that's more than a little foreign to a modern reader. It's excellently researched, with extra notes where applicable, and the way that several of the stories intersect, with specific events narrated from the points of view of more than one character involved, is a nice touch.It was something of a controversial Newbery choice, however, and looking back on it with four years of perspective, I remain unconvinced it was the right one. Several excellent books were published that year, the best of which aimed for something both more universal and more personal. Schlitz stated up front that her reason for creating the book in the first place was to avoid putting on a school play that only starred one or two children, and the result of that when taken as a whole is that it's pure tableau; there's no central character or group of characters to hold one's focus. It's egalitarian, and it allows for a broad survey of what was going on historically, but the structure makes the book somewhat difficult to engage with emotionally. The work fulfils its own ambitions, but it doesn't transcend them.
As for those other titles, the Honor books in 2008 were Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson. Elijah won most of the other available awards (the Coretta Scott King, the Scott O'Dell, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children), and the Schmidt title has a near-fanatical fanbase. My personal favorite of the year was Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, by M.T. Anderson, which has a combination of humor and emotional nakedness that's intensely rare in a children's title. Now, that one was the third in the Pals in Peril! series, and sequels can be a tough sell, but I also had strong positive feelings about A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (wonderful characters!), and Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.L. LaFevers (thrilling adventure!). And all of this leaves out Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was probably too visual of an experience to be a fair Newbery choice, but which was still fantastic (and Caldecott-winning).
As a side note, Rachael makes a passionate argument that Schlitz deserves the Newbery -- but the 2007 award (which would have been for A Drowned Maiden's Hair), rather than the 2008 one. I haven't read that book -- and I note with a bit of surprise that the professional reviews of it at the time were somewhat tepid -- but I know that she's not the only one who feels that way. (We'll come back to this discussion whenever it is that I get to blogging about The Higher Power of Lucky, or whenever Rachael decides to write a full blog post on her love of ADMH.)
One has to commend the committee for looking outside the usual Newbery box, and as the only work for the stage ever to win the award, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was hardly a predictable choice. But, while it's certainly good, I still think there were better options.