The best books for feeling like you scrubbed floors in the Middle Ages

Who am I?

I'm an American writer who grew obsessed with all things King Arthur at age 10. Trying to be the best 7th-grade Arthurian scholar in the world set me on a path of life-long learning and research. My historical fantasy novels for children have been flatteringly called "maybe the only [fiction] depiction of the complexities of feudal obligations & responsibilities I've ever seen" by a real medievalist. While that wasn't what I was going for, it speaks to the thing I seek out when I read: total immersion in another world. If you don't feel like you scrubbed pots in the Middle Ages, why would you read about a medieval scullery maid?

I wrote...

Handbook for Dragon Slayers

By Merrie Haskell,

Book cover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess's responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda's lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Catherine, Called Birdy

Merrie Haskell Why did I love this book?

The original 1994 cover features a medieval girl giving the reader the slightest side-eyed smirk as she pulls a rope for a classic doorway-bucket prank. The cover fits the novel perfectly: they're both vivid, detailed, direct, and slightly irreverent. Cushman's presentation of medieval life creates just the right amount of culture shock to remind you that the past truly is a foreign country--Birdy's matter-of-fact relationship to her fleas, for example. "Picked off twenty-nine fleas today," she writes one day (the book is presented as Birdy's diary). While Birdy is a lady who does more embroidery than floor scrubbing, the feeling of immersion in the Middle Ages is just the sort of warts-and-all experience that I adore.

By Karen Cushman,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Catherine, Called Birdy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?


A funny coming-of-age novel about a fourteen-year-old girl's fight for freedom and right to self-determination in medieval England.

Catherine's in trouble. Caught between a mother who is determined to turn her into the perfect medieval lady and a father who wants her to marry her off to much older and utterly repulsive suitor.

Luckily, Catherine has a plan. She has experience outwitting suitors and is ready to take matters into her own hands . . .

Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy is the inspiration for Prime Video's medieval comedy film directed by…

Book cover of Journey for a Princess

Merrie Haskell Why did I love this book?

I first read this book a dozen times in junior high, borrowed it on interlibrary loan several times in adulthood, and eventually bought a second-hand copy. Leighton's 1960 book was rather eye-opening after a steady diet of girl power books, as it features a princess who doesn't take up a sword or rebel against society. And yet, I absolutely adored Elstrid, thrilling as she learned to navigate the complexities of her medieval world. This is by far the most historical and political book on this list, based on real people. The only drawback to this book is that the princess never scrubs a floor. But you certainly believe she knew each one of her scullery maids by name!

By Margaret Leighton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Journey for a Princess as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The child begins to enjoy fantasy stories that have rich imaginative nature about self and the surroundings.

Book cover of The Black Cauldron

Merrie Haskell Why did I love this book?

I read the second book in the Prydain Chronicles first, so it remains my favorite for introducing me to this magical version of medieval Wales and an Assistant Pig-Keeper. While I, like Taran, wanted to avoid the mundanities of life and skip straight to the magic swords, it was the grounding in the reality of chores that made me believe in the world. It also made me believe that if I had the good fortune to discover a portal to Prydain, that I could at least take up a career in the scullery, the forge, or possibly as a pig-keeper, while I waited to be discovered for the princess-in-disguise that I surely must be.

By Lloyd Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Black Cauldron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

The peaceful land of Prydain is under threat. The evil Lord of Annuvin is using the dark magic of the Black Cauldron to create a terrifying army of deathless warriors.

The Cauldron must be destroyed, and Taran joins Prince Gwydion and his faithful knights, Ellidyr and Adaon, in this perilous quest. Taran is desperate to wear his first sword and prove his worth amongst such noble men. But their adventure will demand great sacrifices, as each warrior fulfils his destiny in totally unexpected ways.

The Black Cauldron is the second book in Lloyd Alexander's classic fantasy epic The Chronicles of…

Book cover of The Tale of Gwyn

Merrie Haskell Why did I love this book?

When I first encountered this book in the late 1980s, it was titled Jackaroo--named for the Robin Hood-like folk hero in the non-magical secondary world called the Kingdom. However, the star of the story is Gwyn, so the renaming makes sense. The book is riveting in its action moments, but somehow I'm even more drawn to the scenes of daily toil. I have absolutely no idea how Voigt can make scrubbing the floor seem so important! (This is the real floor-scrubbing book of this list.) The Tale of Gwyn evokes a medieval European past that feels more real than the best-researched historical novel. Hopefully the series rebrand draws the wide readership it deserves--it is both exciting and thoughtful, bleak and hopeful, and I return to it again and again. 

By Cynthia Voigt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tale of Gwyn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

In a fantastical kingdom ravaged by famine and poverty, the prospect of hope lies with a mythical masked hero in this, the first book in the Tales of the Kingdom series from Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voigt.

In a distant time, a kingdom is starving. With winter upon them, there is little hope, except for the legend of Jackaroo: a masked outlaw who comes at night to aid the destitute and helpless. But Gwyn, the innkeeper’s daughter, is too practical for false hopes. She believes Jackaroo is nothing more than a fairy tale told to keep children hopeful till the next…

Book cover of The Wolf Hunt: A Novel of the Crusades

Merrie Haskell Why did I love this book?

Gillian Bradshaw is one of the best historical fiction writers I know of, and everyone else should know of her too. The Wolf Hunt is based on Bisclavret, one of the Lais of Marie de France, and fairly drips with historical detail (please use a coaster). The fantasy element is the major plot point, but the magic that allows for it is so subtle and low-key that I nearly forgot to classify the book as historical fantasy. This is a grown-up Catherine, Called Birdy in its ability to evoke a medieval mind and setting, minus the humor, plus more romance. And while there's no floor-scrubbing, it has big floor-scrubbing energy.

By Gillian Bradshaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wolf Hunt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE WOLF HUNT is a breathtaking and romantic adventure. When Marie Penthievre of Chalendrey is abducted and taken to Brittany's court she vows never to dishonour her family by marrying a Breton. There is only one who might change her mind: Tiarnan of Talensac, a handsome and noble knight...and a werewolf. But Tiarnan marries someone else - and when his new wife learns of his secret, she betrays him. When the widow joins forces with Tiarnan's enemy, Marie realises something is dreadfully wrong. Only she is clear headed enough to rescue Tiarnan and return him to his rightful status -…

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The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

By Susan Rowland,

Book cover of The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

Susan Rowland Author Of The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Part-time celt Modern alchemist Myth hunter Jungian

Susan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A traditional mystery with a touch of cozy, The Alchemy Fire Murder is for those who like feisty women sleuths, Oxford Colleges, alchemy, strong characters, and real concerns like trafficking, wildfires, racism, and climate change. This book especially works for those fascinated by myth and witches in history. Read for a seventeenth-century alchemist in Connecticut, a lost alchemy scroll stuck in a California Museum, and a blizzard in Los Angeles.

Murder ensues when an intern is attacked after making a momentous discovery with Mary Wandwalker, an inexperienced detective commissioned to recover the treasure vital to the survival of her Oxford college, St Julian’s. When the young man’s brother is falsely accused, Mary has to step in.

The Alchemy Fire Murder: a Mary Wandwalker Mystery

By Susan Rowland,

What is this book about?

Former Archivist Mary Wandwalker hates bringing bad news. Nevertheless, she confirms to her alma mater that their prized medieval alchemy scroll, is, in fact, a seventeenth century copy. She learns that the original vanished to colonial Connecticut with alchemist, Robert Le More. Later the genuine scroll surfaces in Los Angeles. Given that the authentic artifact is needed for her Oxford college to survive, retrieving it is essential.

Mary agrees to get the real scroll back as part of a commission for her three-person Enquiry Agency. However, tragedy strikes in Los Angeles. Before Mary can legally obtain the scroll, a young…

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