The Secret World of Hildegard

Book review by
Patricia Tauzer, Common Sense Media
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Gorgeous artwork, but too ethereal for many kids.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages
Violence & Scariness

Hildegard is frightened by her visions as a child.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this biography only gives part of the story of Hildegard and creates a strange, somewhat terrifying, mystical world that might disturb some kids. The book is quite religious in nature and a better fit for those with a specific appreciation for or interest in Christian mysticism.

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What's the story?

Hildegard von Bingen was a real woman who lived in the Middle Ages and, as a mystic visionary, did amazing things, especially for a woman in those times. This is an attempt to tell the story of her struggle to accept the mysterious power she was given and have the courage to share the visions she saw. It begins with the disturbing visions that terrify her as a child, and then moves with her to the monastery where she is taught as a young girl. There she learns to accept that her visions come from God, and she becomes headmistress as well as a scientist, composer, author, preacher, and more.

Is it any good?

Another collaboration by Jeanette and Jonah Winter, this book has a beautiful, vibrant cover and is filled with amazing, almost folksy, artwork of the kind found in their earlier book Diego. However, the subject matter here is way too ethereal for most picture book readers, and speaks more to those with specific appreciation for or interest in Christian mysticism, losing the rest of readers.

Of course, the story of Hildegard is a complicated one to tell. But, in an attempt to capture the mystical tone of her life, this telling slips into myth bordering on historical inaccuracy. The language seems as if it comes straight from a Nativity play; while it's supposed to convey Hildegard's religious significance, most kids won't understand it, nor will they make sense of the chant that repeats throughout the book or the language that describes the visions, even though both are presented in different fonts meant to set them apart. All in all, this was a courageous and artistic attempt to write about an unusual woman, but while tweens may be intrigued, The Secret World of Hildegard falls short of its aim. To its credit, however, it includes a bibliography at the end for those who want to do further study.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the Middle Ages and what they might have been like. The author says that the men and the towns they ruled were gray -- what do you think he meant by that? What do you think it would be like to live in a world where you had to keep quiet and learn to serve and obey?

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