Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Book Review: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Book: The Wednesday Wars
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Published: 2007

Every Wednesday afternoon, half the kids in Holling Hoodhood’s class go to Hebrew class at Temple Beth-el and the other half go to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s. Which leaves Holling, the lone Presbyterian, in the care of Mrs. Baker. Who hates his guts.

At first, it’s all mindless chores like pounding erasers. But by October, Mrs. Baker has come up with a really fiendish plan: Holling is going to read Shakespeare every Wednesday. Oh gak! Just kill him already. But Holling is surprised to find that Shakespeare is actually sort of interesting. There’s all those neat murders, for one thing. He’s also surprised to discover that Mrs. Baker is, and has been, more than a teacher out to make him suffer. As the world changes all around him, Holling learns--from Shakespeare, from Mrs. Baker, from his classmates, and from his family--something of what it means to be human.

Holling’s voice reminds me of Richard Peck’s narrators: hilarious, thoughtful, and nostalgic, as if he is telling you the story from somewhere in his future. Schmidt also resembles Peck in the he captures both a physical age--twelve years old, in seventh grade--and a historical age--1967-1968, in Long Island. Flower children, Bobby Kennedy, the threat of atomic bombs, the Vietnam War and Mickey Mantle all happen to Holling during his seventh-grade year, as well as the more timeless worries about family, friendship, first love, and identity.

This book was first brought to my attention by Richie’s Picks. Richie must get these books straight from the authors, so fast is he to find the good stuff. I usually trust his taste, and I was especially excited for this book because of the Shakespeare connection, being a recovering English major. At the same time, I was a little wary. Sometimes authors like to ladle on the Cul-Chah, because we’re ed-yoo-cating the kiddies, don’tcha know. But Schmidt (an English professor by day) has a light hand with the Shakespeare discussions, weaving them lightly throughout the book and always keeping in mind how they affect Holling’s story. And for a geek like me, who’s read every play that Holling has, Schmidt goes below the surface, extracting unexpected insights that make me want to read the plays all over again. This is an author I’ll definitely seek out again.

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