Some sample career advice: “Fake it till you make it.” “Dress for the job you want.” “Pride goes before a fall.” Now imagine all that advice smashed together when you’re 13 years old (or maybe 9, you’re not sure) and all alone in the world, and the new job you’re prepping for is king of England.
With The Player King, inspired by a case of truth being way stranger than fiction, Avi (the author of 75-plus books, including Nothing but the Truth and Newbery Medal-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead) shares with readers the amazing story of Lambert Simnel, a young boy in 1486 who briefly played at being an actual monarch despite having no royal blood, education or anything else that might qualify or prepare him to rule a country.
In a call to his home in Colorado, where he lives with his wife, Avi explains that it was an exciting day some 15 years ago when he came across the scant facts that inspired him to write The Player King. “I read a lot of British history,” Avi says, “and Lambert was literally a footnote. Considering who I write for, what I write and that he’s still a mystery, what could be better than that? . . . I couldn’t dream this up.”
In Avi’s hands, that footnote blossoms into a fascinating, entertaining, historically accurate story set in the late 15th century, at the beginning of the Tudor period. Henry VII has taken the English throne, even though he wasn’t next in line to reign, and angry, ousted politicians and clerics are casting about for ways to regain the power they believe is rightfully theirs.
“My own personal mantra is that writers don’t write writing, they write reading.”
Meanwhile, Lambert toils away as a scullion at Tackley’s Tavern in Oxford. His existence is an unendingly dreary one. He has no idea where his parents are, and he’s always dirty, hungry and getting yelled at, although he does maintain a wry sense of humor: “In short,” our narrator says, “my life was worth no more than a spot of dry spit.” His only joy comes from bakery runs, when he can pause for a moment to watch street performers poke fun at the royal family, and imagine what it would be like to be a player touring the country and having people laughingly bow to him.
Then, in a confusing, bizarre series of events, a friar named Brother Simonds swoops in and tells Lambert he’s not a lowly orphaned scullion—he’s the rightful king of England. At the behest of the Earl of Lincoln, the friar spirits Lambert away (after buying him from the tavern keeper) so he can train the boy to become—or at least pass for—royalty.
Avi’s singular ability to convey multitudes via carefully crafted, often spare phrases is evident throughout The Player King—but especially so at this point in the story, as Lambert marvels at and is overwhelmed by sights, smells and sensations most modern-day readers likely take for granted.
“My own personal mantra is that writers don’t write writing, they write reading,” Avi says. “I think that if you write well, and I sometimes can, you can get an emotional response just to the structure of the words. You create an image, a sense of place and being that goes beyond plot, that goes to the heart of the experience.”
Lambert’s new experiences are unceasing: When he looks out the window of his new home, “A bird flew by . . . below! I, who had spent my whole remembered life in a cellar, as if in a tomb—it made me dizzy to see such things from such a height.”
As he begins to acclimate to his new life, Lambert slowly gains confidence. There’s a different purpose to his days—and a journey ahead that will shock him—but there’s also a strange yet comforting familiarity in still being constantly reminded to obey.
“A key part of the book for me is his rumination on being told what to do,” Avi says. “He can clear a table, and also be a king. What happens when you start to believe [that] yourself? . . . It’s a little like Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, the idea that you can create this image of class and position by manipulating the surface.”
Speaking of manipulation, Avi says, “Most of the writing [of this era’s history] was done at the behest of the Tudors, who wanted to make sure nobody believed this story. And yet, [someone] did write about it, it was real. . . . It’s all about learning about the propaganda, and understanding why they were so fearful of this kid when they were the ones that created him.”
Curious readers will be glad to know that Avi provides further details of Lambert’s history in an author’s note at the book’s end. They’re tantalizing details, to be sure, but Lambert still remains largely a mystery—a story to be believed, but also to be imagined.
“ ‘The writer’s job is to imagine the truth,’ ” Avi says, quoting writer Paula Fox. “I love the idea that one imagines the truth and tries to create that in readers’ heads.”
He adds, “It’s an interesting concept, I think, that one sees more of the world when you read than you do with your eyes. That’s just extraordinary.”
(Author photo by Katherine Warde.)