Brown's lyrical narrative chronicles the life of Columcille, born to an Irish king in 521, and his passionate commitment to words and ideas. Though he grew up during the Dark Ages, when the new rulers of Ireland had virtually extinguished education ("Reading and writing were like magic, and the people who knew their secrets as rare as wizards"), Columcille from early childhood loved writing, which he mastered as a student in a monastery. He went on to become a monk as well as a skilled scribe and poet, and founded many monasteries. Brown laces historical facts with anecdotes from legends in his portrayal of this remarkable man, who exiled himself from his homeland after his kinsmen crushed the army of a High King, in defense of a manuscript. Columcille had painstakingly hand-lettered a Psalter (book of Psalms) and the king had ruled that the copy belonged to the owner of the original manuscript. In penitence for the bloodshed, Columcille decided to exile himself from his homeland, and ended up on the Scottish island of Iona, and there founded a monastery. He and the other resident scribes there devoted themselves to transcribing manuscripts, creating books that were then "dispatched, like small boats on a dark and wild sea, to places where reading and writing had been forgotten or ignored." Like the work of his subject, Brown's account also sheds light on an intriguing individual of extraordinary accomplishment. The author's signature stark, muted watercolors seem especially well suited to this hero's life of piety and his historical setting.
Bulletin, Center for Children's Books
Both involving and credible. . . Brown captures the monastic infighting and clan warfare, spiritual dedication and passionate defense of learning that have shaped Columcille’s renown. Chill olive greens and khaki browns mistily tint watercolor scenes of monastery, battlefield, and swollen sea, softening to a more verdant hue for Columcille’s final settlement on the Scottish island of Iona.
Brown’s text is lilting, the sentences varied in length and intensity, making it suitable for reading aloud. But fine as it is, it has to take second place to the illustrations. They are almost dreamlike in quality—as if we were seeing the Dark Ages emerging from the mists. The watercolor medium is beautifully manipulated to achieve these effects; the page design is dramatic, particularly the double-page spread of Columcille’s coracle battling the wild seas.
Kirkus Reviews Starred Review
Brown (A Voice from the Wilderness, 2001, etc.) continues his series of picture-book biographies of lesser-known figures with a tale of the life of Saint Columcille, the sixth century prince and monk better known by the Latin form of his name, Columba. In Ireland in Columcille’s time, “Reading and writing were like magic, and the people who knew their secrets as rare as wizards. Columcille became one of them.” When a former teacher, Finnian, would not permit him to copy a book of psalms, he did so in secret. The high king Diarmait ruled that the copy, too, belonged to Finnian and a fierce battle erupted. Though Columcille got his book back, he was devastated at the bloodshed, and took a leather boat to Iona, off the coast of Scotland. The monastery he founded there, and its scriptorium, dispatched books “like small boats on a dark and wild sea.” Reading as magical and books worthy of being fought over are lovely lessons laid out in the powerful story. Brown’s usual tender watercolors take on a darker hue. Double-paged, wordless spreads of the battle and of the sea add to the depth of the images, as do lucid step-by-step pictures of the making of a manuscript book and the building of a coracle (leather boat). An alphabet of exquisite Irish uncial letters and an author’s note add to the richness. This works on many levels to delight and to inspire; as a stirring read-aloud, as a saint’s biography, and as a beautiful picture book.
Booklist Starred Review
Brown, creator of such picture-book biographies such as Alice Ramsey’s Grand Adventure (1997) and Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa (2000), here traces the life of Columcille. Better known as Saint Columba, Columcille was born a prince of a sixth-century Irish clan and became a monk and a scribe. When a dispute over ownership of a copied manuscript erupted into battle in which thousands died, Columcille left Ireland to found a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona. There, monks devoted themselves to copying manuscripts, and those copies were sent out into the world, where they lightened the intellectual darkness of the age. Setting the scene after the fall of the Roman Empire, when a great deal of knowledge had been lost and learning was little valued, Brown states “Reading and writing were like magic, and the people who knew their secrets are rare as wizards.” What a powerful idea for children working to master those skills today. This picture-book biography is gracefully written and illustrated with great delicacy and finesse. The illustrations, ink drawings with watercolor washes, feature muted greens, grays, and tans. An informative author’s note, a page demonstrating “hand lettering from the time of Columcille,” and a bibliography round out the presentation of this comely book on an unusual subject.
School Library Journal Starred Review
A lyrical picture-book biography of Columcille, or St.Columba, an Irish monk of the sixth century. In an age in which books were a rarity and few people were literate, Columcille was “Prince, scribe, monk, [and] bard.” Brown describes his subject’s fascination with a rare book of Bible psalms and his secret vow to make an illegal copy. The High King declared that the duplicate manuscript was the property of the owner of the original, and a terrible battle ensued. Although Columcille’s army won, the horror of the bloodshed that day caused him to vow to leave Ireland and cross the sea to Scotland. On the island of Iona, he and 12 followers established a monastery and set to work copying other books and illuminated manuscripts. This brief but fascinating story will appeal to bibliophiles and be useful for assignments on European saints and Celtic history. There is a helpful author’s note, a sample of Roman alphabet, and detailed sketches of bookmaking and a leather boat. The illustrations are soft double-page watercolors that create an impression of green countryside, wild waves, and the windswept shoreline. This is a lovely, intriguing book for special readers.