Fuse #8

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

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.”
Few books that I read make me want to then immediately find the audiobook as well, but “Wednesday Wars” is one of the few. It looks as if Scholastic Audio Books was the smartie who got the bid on this pup. My congratulations go out to them. I will be locating a copy of your work the minute it becomes available because if there is anything more delicious than reading a book of this nature it’s hearing it read aloud. If you happen to be a fifth, sixth, or even seventh or eighth grade teacher and you’re allowed a little readaloud time, please consider giving this book a shot. The only thing better than hearing this book on CD would be to watch your own teacher giving voice to Mrs. Baker’s sarcasm and heart.

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."

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At 8:47 AM , Blogger Monica Edinger said...

Since I know how frustrating it is to read a review like this of a book not available for a few more months, here's a lengthy excerpt to whet appetites:


At 10:23 AM , Blogger Sarah Louise said...

what? it's not available yet? I'll go look for the one about Maine, then.

At 11:25 AM , Blogger Laura said...

Oh, yes, I think it's important to read "Lizzie Bright" before reading "Wednesday Wars". That way you can really experience Schmidt's broad range as a writer.

I agree - spring has shown us a lackluster list. I would love Schmidt to get lots of recognition for this book...but not if it's going to just be a sorry-we-didn't-give-you-the-Newbery-when-we-should-have thing, you know? He was completely robbed.

At 12:31 PM , Blogger Jennifer Schultz said...

This sounds like a fantastic book, and one I hope to order for my library. It's a boy story, it's a multicultural story, and it's not the beginning of another fantasy epic series (I know quite a few children who don't like to read fantasy) etc. I'm looking forward to reading it.

However, I do have some questions. Those quotes are pretty clever. Are there more examples in the book like this? If there are, do you think they would be a stumbling block for children who might not understand them? Or are they something that if you get them, that's just gravy, but if not, it doesn't hamper your understanding and enjoyment of the story?

At 1:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great cover. Has both a handmade quality and a nice graphic quality. It's got wit, too, and it isn't something we've seen a million times already.

At 4:44 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I just plucked out the quotes that amused me. Please trust me when I say that there are certainly enough sentences and phrases in here that kids will get and love as well. Besides, there's nothing wrong with being witty with kids. It beats talking down to them. The book is definitely 5th grade and up, in my opinion.

At 11:58 PM , Blogger Jennifer Schultz said...

I don't believe there is anything wrong with being witty with kids.

I don't have the benefit of having read the book, so I was curious.

At 11:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Monica, thank you for the excerpt! I can't wait for this book to be out, but that helped slake my thirst . . .

At 12:14 PM , Blogger Jordan Henrichs said...

This is WAY off topic, (The Wednesday Wars sounds awesome, yah!), but Fuse, didn't you at one point have a review of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life up at Amazon?

I'm reading that book by Wendy Mass and absolutely love it. Now I noticed there's no review. Is it safe to assume that's because maybe this was a Newbery contender? I truly hope it was given consideration.

At 5:37 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I think that review was originally on my blog but that for one reason or another it never made it to Amazon. Which is odd. I'll have to look into that. In the meantime, I've reposted my own review of it here. Just type the name into the search box and it should crop up. I just discovered that Mass has a new YA novel coming out this year as well, so that's good news.

At 6:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had heard all the buzz about Wednesday wars, too, and I loved it - hands down. I laughed outloud, and cried. On the T.

I guess I'm not 100% sold on the idea that it has a lot of kid-appeal, though. I felt like a lot of the humor was wry-adult-looking-back-on-childhood-logic, like i was reading a transcript of an episode of "This American Life". Which is fine with me because I love "This American Life". But you know who doesn't really love it? Kids.

I'd be thrilled if this book spoke to a young audience, and a lot of people think it will, so I guess time will tell. Come on kiddies, prove me wrong...

At 10:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading Wednesday Wars, my son, age 12, asked me to get him The Tempest, which he has since completed. We both enjoyed the book.

At 11:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

you sound like a fairly knowledgable reviewer (okay an increadible one) so I was wonderering if you ould be willing to help me with a school assignment. in my AP litereature class we need to choose a book that we find good enough to deserve this year's newbery medal. then we get up on a stage and say why. we can do this however we want, which is great and all but I don't know what I want. I know that I want to incorporate some shakespear quoutes and a bobby kenedy quote I found and of course some music by the beatles and monkees but I don't know how to string it all together and fill in the blanks. I want to know what you think it is direly important that I should mention and what were some significant points in the plot and what made the character of hollong 'well rounded' thank you in advance
PS okay mr. anonymous first of all watch who your calling 'kiddie' mr.! secondly the newbery medal is for childrens novels for readers up to the 8th grade. (which I'm in) so just because Wednesday wars is inching closer to the limit doesn't mean that it isn't one to watch.


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