Friday, August 12, 2011

The Wednesday Wars

I was a little hesitant to pick up The Wednesday Wars   so soon after falling in love with Okay for Now (my review).  I don't know why. Schmidt is one of those writers that you can instinctively trust to deliver a good book. While both books share characters they are not really connected and it would be unjust to compare them to one another so I will try not to. Holland and Doug are very different boys with very different stories. They share the same time period, the same school (until Doug moves), and . Their voices are very different though, shaped by their different and each finds an interest unusual for boys their age. experiences and ways of life. Schmidt is to be commended for writing two such distinct, very real, sympathetic characters.
Hardcover copy on left, paperback on right.
Every Wednesday afternoon the 7th graders of Mrs. Baker's homeroom go their separate ways for the last period of the day. Half to the temple for Hebrew lessons, half to Saint Adelbert's for Catechism lessons. Not Holland though because he happens to be Presbyterian. So he is stuck alone with Mrs. Baker, who he is convinced hates his guts and is out to get him. After weeks of making him clean everything in sight Mrs. Baker comes up with a new device of torture: Shakespeare. And Holland can't complain because his father insists the fate of the family business rests on keeping Mrs. Baker happy with him. But it turns out Shakespeare, and Mrs. Baker, might not be so bad after all.

Writing a book about Shakespeare aimed for middle schoolers is a supreme act of bravery. It's not like Shakespeare is merely mentioned, there are quotes and descriptions. Over the course of the year Holland reads: The  Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. He doesn't just read them though, he internalizes them and connects them to his life. He quotes them. He performs in a production of The Tempest. The Shakespeare here is not a side note, it is integral to the whole. It is incorporated in a way that never takes over Holland's story though, it is just a part of it. It never becomes didactic.

On top of the Shakespeare you have the time period the book is set in, 1967-1968. The year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, things in Vietnam reached a new level of Hell and President Johnson announced he would not be running for a second term. All of this is included but through the eyes of a seventh grader. Holland filters it in relation to how it affects him, which brings the history to life in a very real way.

While this is a story about Shakespeare and the tumultuous time period both of those are just aspects of the story of Holland. Holland is a well fed, well taken care of, thriving 12 year old. His life is far from perfect but it is also far from awful. He is an average kid. He has the sort of voice that reflects this. He is funny, a little over dramatic at times, and egocentric. Anyone who has ever been 12 can relate. I liked how over the course of the book Holland's scope of the world expanded from himself to see things from a larger perspective. Mrs. Baker and the Shakespeare help with this, as does his older sister. This is not a "coming of age" story, but a story about the typical growth and change that occurs at certain points in the human experience. Holland is one of those kids you can't help but like.

Then there is the writing. Schmidt has a real way with words. I love the imagery he uses and the way he evokes emotion. After an incident in which Holland loses faith in a hero of his he has this to say:
"When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you're not sure if there will ever be another god to their fill their place. Or if you'd ever want another god to fill their place. You don't want fire to go out inside you twice."
He comes back to this thought several times in the chapter in ways that made me cry. The book is full of vivid phrases and imagery like this that fully engage the senses in experiencing the story.

The Wednesday Wars was a 2008 Newbery Honor book and well deserved the recognition. Now I need to read Schmidt's book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which won not only a Newbery Honor, but a Printz Honor as well.

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