Review of the Day: The Wednesday Wars
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books (a Houghton Mifflin Company imprint). $16.00.
Praise, like profanity, has to be doled out carefully. If a reviewer is a particularly enthusiastic sort (ahem!) and prefers to lavish cuddles and kisses on every book that crosses their plate then what exactly are they supposed to do when something truly extraordinary appears before them? Use up all your good stuff too early in the season and you’ve nothing left. Fortunately for me, I took precautions. I’ve been on permanent Newbery Lookout this year. Anything and everything that might be a contender, I’ve snatched up mighty quick in the hopes of getting some early buzz going. And while it’s been a nice year, I think everyone will agree that the Spring 2007 season has turned out to be fairly so-so. Nobody is talking about any books with any real passion quite yet. That is, until whispers started to surround “The Wednesday Wars” by Gary Schmidt. Whispers. Murmurs. Over-exaggerated winks accompanied by sharp elbow pokes to the ribcage. So when I finally managed to get my sticky little hands on a copy I had to do the standard Reviewer Cleansing of the Mind. I had to tell myself soothing things before I began along the lines of, “It’s okay if you don’t like it. Forget all the people who’ve already loved it. Clear your mind. Expand your soul. Breathe.” Then I picked it up and forgot all of that. Good? Brother, you don’t know the meaning of the word till you read this puppy. For those of you out there who think Gary D. Schmidt was done robbed ROBBED of a Newbery for his, “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy,” I think we’ve found ourselves something new to root for.
Mrs. Baker hates Holling Hoodhood. There’s no two ways about it, as far as he can tell. From the minute he entered her classroom she had it in for him and he's trying not to become paranoid. Now because half the kids in his class are Jewish and half Catholic, every Wednesday Holling (a Protestant through and through) is stuck alone with Mrs. Baker while the other kids go to Hebrew School or Catechism for the afternoon. And what has this evil genius dreamt up for our poor young hero? Shakespeare. He has to read it and get tested on it regularly with the intention (Holling is sure) of boring him to death. The thing is, Holling kind of gets to like the stuff. Meanwhile, though, he has to deal with wearing yellow tights butt-gracing feathers, avoiding killer rats and his older sister, and deciding what to do about Meryl Lee Kowalski, “who has been in love with me since she first laid eyes on me in the third grade,” amongst other things. Set during the school year of 1967-68 against a backdrop of Vietnam and political strife, Holling finds that figuring out who you are goes above and beyond what people want you to become.
Oh sure. I liked it. I’m also 28 with an MLIS degree and an apartment in Manhattan. I am not your average child reader. And when a lot of people think of children’s books they think of quality literature that bored the socks off of them when they were kids. So the real question you have to consider here is, is this a book for kids or adults? Well, I’m no kid, but I tell you plain that I would have loved “Wednesday Wars” when I was twelve. Not that it would have been an obvious choice. First of all, it’s a boy book. Boy protagonist. Boy topics like pranks and escaped rodentia and baseball. But like all great literature (oh yeah, I said it) everyone who reads this thing will find themselves simultaneously challenged and engrossed. First of all, Schmidt exhibits a sense of humor here that was downplayed in “Lizzie Bright”. It’s not fair to compare these two books, of course. I mean, suburban kid living on Long Island verses 1912 racially segregated Maine. Which is going to be more of a laugh riot? But funny is what gets kids reading and funny is what this book is. The clever author always knows when to downplay the humor and work in the more serious elements, but when you ask yourself why a kid would choose one title over another, nine times out of ten the kid is going to grab the book that will make them laugh AND think over the one that’ll just make ‘em think (and snore).
And I love so many of the concepts here. The community in which this book takes place is equally divided between Catholics and Jews, with Holling Hoodhood the odd Presbyterian out. Certainly not everything is sunshine and roses here, but it’s a pretty good situation and the kids make do the best they can. Of course, due to the nature of different religions and churches, the only time these kids can get together for a good baseball game is Sunday afternoon. Schmidt’s attention to details like this half make you wonder what percentage of the book was based on fact and how much of it was made up. After all, it takes place on Long Island and Mr. Schmidt grew up there during this era. Surely he also knew someone who had a list of the 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you. Or maybe someone close to him in the seventh grade could beat all the eighth graders on the Varsity track team. Still, wherever he’s getting the material, I hope he never runs out. This stuff is pure gold.
Shakespeare works as an ideal transition between the different adventures going on in Holling’s life. Unfortunately, since I know my Shakespeare, I can’t say whether or not a kid who’s never heard of MacBeth or The Tempest is going to understand Holling’s allusions and mentions. Then again, Shakespeare is so beloved because his works may be interpreted on multiple levels. Maybe the connections don't require knowledge of the original material. Schmidt makes the integration of Shakespeare and historical middle grade fiction a kind of seamless alliance. He doesn’t push it. How easy it would have been to assign each month in this book a play and then wrap the storyline around Shakespeare’s already existing dramas. Instead, plays do pop up almost every month, but they complement rather than direct the action. Schmidt doesn’t go for obvious choices either. He doesn’t end with “The Tempest”. He practically begins with it. And when he does end with “Much Ado About Nothing,” what you remember best is the figure of Don Pedro standing all alone while everyone dances happily into the sunset.
There is also a healthy heaping of redemption in this book. Where abused frightened teachers come back as conquering school board members, ready to take down enormous scary rats if required to do so. Where villains like Doug Swieteck’s brother (that’s all the name we ever get for that boy) will pull a horrendous prank on you one day, then turn it all around to anonymously praise you in a similar fashion the next. Not everyone is redeemed. Holling’s father remains as stiff and intransigent as ever by the story’s close. You can see how he may easily lose everyone he loves through the force of his inflexibility, but if he's going to undergo a change it may have to happen in the sequel (*hint*, Mr. Schmidt, *hint*).
Vietnam never really stopped as a subject of children’s literature, but with the Iraq War (as of this review) still in full swing, we’re seeing a distinct upsurge in titles focused on that area of the world. There is, for example (actual title), “Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam” by Cynthia Kadohata, amongst others. And that’s all well and good, but even if you want someone to, a good author doesn’t preach. They don’t get all didactic for the sake of bandying about their own opinion on one topic or another. The Vietnam we see in this book affects everyone in this story, even if it's just tangentially. Schmidt doesn't overplay his hand, though he comes close with the character of Mai Thi, a Vietnamese kid brought over by the Catholic Relief Agency. Since this isn't Mai Thi's story, we can only see brief instances where she suffers abuse because of her ethnicity, and her happy ending seems a bit forced.
And on some level, critics are going to find themselves torn over the multiple happy endings in this book. Nothing is perfect all the time, but more often than not Schmidt wraps up loose ends and rewards his heroes in a deeply satisfying manner. Holling could easily have fallen into the trap of being one of those perpetually put upon schlubs that never get the girl, never learn, and never grow. But Holling does grow. He grows and he changes and he becomes the man his father may never be. And if there is happiness in this book, it would take a pretty sorry soul to begrudge Holling his much deserved kudos. Maybe it’s fantastical to believe that a kid who can act Shakespeare and rescue his sister would also be a great track runner and a generally fabulous human being, but that’s the way the story goes, folks. Like it or lump it.
Writing is one thing. One-liners another entirely. I’m just going to put these before you for your consideration, out of context, but still funny.
- “To ask your big sister to be your ally is like asking Nova Scotia to go into battle with you.”
- “Mr. [Principal] Guareschi’s long ambition had been to become dictator of a small country. Danny Hupfer said that he had been waiting for the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro and then send him down to Cuba, which Mr. Guareschi would then rename Guareschiland. Meryl Lee said that he was probably holding out for something in Eastern Europe.”
- “The rest of that afternoon, we both held our feet up off the floor and took turns reading parts from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – even though the print was made for tiny insects with multiple eyes and all the pictures in the book were ridiculous.”
- “She then raised her hands and waved them grandly, and we began a medley from ‘The Sound of Music’ – which is the vocal equivalent of eating too much chocolate.”
What can kids do to face a scary future where so much is unknown and frightening? Mrs. Baker gives Holling a piece of advice in the book that should be treasured and remembered. “Learn everything you can – everything. And then use all that you have learned to be a wise and good man.” Kids today, reading this book, can take heart in Holling’s struggle and growth, while just happening to get a laugh out of this pup along the way. Emotions come honestly when you’re in this author’s hands. Chrysanthemum, Mr. Schmidt.
Notes on the Cover: This is one of those clever little cover switcheroos they sometimes pull on you. The original wasn’t all that different from what they’re presenting now. As you can see, the outline of a startled seventh grade boy is staring in abject horror at the outline of Shakespeare. This is a bit of an improvement over the original image which showed a pointy-bearded, barely ruffled, long-haired (and banged) Shakespeare on the right. The new Will is much better. One of those cases where the editorial changes are more “godsend” than “horrific mistake”. One flaw, though. I love this cover and everything, but where exactly are they hoping to put all the medals this book is sure to win? They’re gonna have to cluster them all in the upper left-hand corner on top of one another. This is what we call poor foresight. Come on, guys. When you read this book you should have told the artist to leave a big old blank space at the bottom. Seriously.
Dedications: If I’ve any praise to spare from my almost exhausted supply, let me just say that I haven’t seen an author of this caliber salute an independent children’s bookstore in a dedication for quite some time. Schmidt writes, “For Sally Bulthuis and Camille De Boer, and for all the gentle souls of Pooh’s Corner, who, with grace and wisdom and love, bring children and books together.”
First Lines: "Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me."