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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I’ve spent this week teaching an online class to very bright kids about the Crusades. The class is organized through the Davidson Institute ( which I have mentioned here before. It is a real treat for me to work with kids who are so alert, have fresh ideas to offer, and are not hesitant to express any sort of opinion — agreeing or disagreeing with me. Every time I do this I am reminded of how engaged in learning young people can be. In order to prepare I had to bone up on the Crusades, and that reminded me of why I have always wanted to write about them for young readers. Not only do you have big personalities (Richard the Lion Heart, Saladin), great battles (the siege of the Crac des Chevalliers is one of those military stories that has a terrific twist), a queen most readers do not know (Melisende, queen of Jerusalem), but you have really important themes. The Europeans set out to save their souls, do God’s work, join in the final battles at the end of time, free the Holy Land. In fact they do retake Jerusalem and establish castles and kingdoms in the Middle East. But that does not bring the return of Jesus. Indeed the Christians who live in the Middle East come to make accomodations with the Muslims (some even hire themselves to fight for them). And then the Muslims slowly but surely win back the cities and lands they had lost.
Saladin retakes Jerusalem not a century after the Europeans had won it, but that is hardly the end of the story. Christians continue to go on crusades for centuries — in the Middle East, in Spain, in the Baltic, within France. Stories inspired by Crusading (Song of Roland, the Song of the Cid) come to be the great fantasy quests of the middle ages, inspiring young people for centuries to go on their own journeys. Indeed you can draw a direct line from Urban II calling the first Crusade in 1095 to Columbus sailing off in 1492 (the very year the Crusade, it was officially that, to reconquer Spain suceeded). All of these Crusades were bloody and often cruel (Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492, for example). But the Crusades also brought the exchange of ideas. Christians learned the Zero from the Muslims, as well as a great deal of medicine, astronomy, and science. And, finally, you can make a good case that the various benevolent crusades in the 19th Century — to end slavery, to end child labor, to end alcholism, to end the abuse of women — were an expression of the mentality that took shape in Europe in 1095, only shifted from the battlefield of knights and castles to human rights.
A vast story spanning centuries, linking medieval Europe and the modern world — and yet one we hardly touch on with kids. Why?


  1. We hear calls in the press, on the radio, and television to save different endangered species.Man has been asked to set aside land, change our cultivation, harvest, hunting and fishing practices for the sake of endangered species.Well, I am convinced after 33 years in Education that our battle cry needs to become “SAVE THE TEACHER!”