Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars
Gary D. Schmidt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Newbery Honor

Gary D. Schmidt: the man can write. I have his Printz/Newbery Honor book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy on hold at the library and can't wait to read it. Sometimes it's hard to explain why an author's work is such a pleasure to read. For Schmidt, a few things stand out:

1. Characters: Even the despicable characters (like Holling's dad) are somewhat sympathetic because they're so human. And we feel, really feel, for the Vietnamese girl when she's picked on by people, can remember teachers and school personnel like those in the book, and cheer when Mrs. Baker gets good news about her husband.

2. Less is More: One of the things that sets the great writers apart from the good is the ability to communicate profoundly with few words. Or to resist sensationalizing bits or giving us too much information. For instance, when a grown up swears in this book, Holling might say something like "Mr. --- said, 'Oh.' (Only he didn't really say 'Oh' but it wasn't as good as Shakespeare's curses.)". He refers to his house as The Perfect House with the Perfect Living Room--we don't need to have Schmidt tell us that Holling's parents are trying to keep up appearances. Holling's title for the house sums it up nicely.

3. Voice: This story is so thoroughly from Holling's perspective that we don't even hear his sister named until near the end of the book... and we don't even realize it. She's simply "my sister." The lack of a name is no big deal. (Incidentally, this same thing happened in Okay for Now; in both books, the revelation of the sibling's name indicates the beginning of a new relationship. Subtle, yet profound and unmistakable. And it's a sudden wake up call to hear that sibling's name--the first time you really notice that you never knew his/her name before.)

4. Details: Oh, the details. We're in 1967-8 in this book, yet Schmidt slips in details like "dittoed" worksheets easily and without feeling the need to remind us just what that refers to. Schmidt knows his readers are smarter than that.

5. Complexity: Again, Schmidt is writing to intelligent folks. There is tremendous complexity in this book, layers of characterization, relationships, awakenings, plot, etc. The layers get slowly peeled away, and by the end, we're teary eyed...but in a good way. And we want to stand up and cheer for his protagonists.

6. Grit: Without wallowing in it, Schmidt still manages to communicate some tough stuff: Holling's dad is pretty much a business-comes-first-before-family-kind-of-guy. There are troubles between Holling's parents that come out subtly as the book progresses. Holling's sister runs away. There's a war going on and not everyone is on board with it. They are on board with bomb drills, though. And yet, Schmidt's books are hopeful and life-affirming; life is hard, but there is still hope.

7. Unifying Concept: In Okay for Now, Doug discovers a passion for art and drawing. This passion helps frame quite a bit of the book. For Holling, in The Wednesday Wars, Shakespeare becomes that same passion--albeit despite Holling's initial feelings. We learn some marvelous Shakespearean curses (my favorite being "Toads, beetles, bats!"), see plot developments through plot arcs from Shakespeare, gain insight into characters/relationships/emotions through Shakespearean similarities, and so forth. This is masterfully done and does not feel like Schmidt is trying to "teach" Shakespeare through the book. Rather, Shakespeare becomes the unifying concept, if you will. And this is because it becomes a unifying concept for Holling and we are seeing everything through Holling's eyes.

Recommended for middle grades (Holling's in 7th grade, actually, in the book)
Book from local library; cover image from goodreads

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