It’s not April yet…
I know, I’m usually late with my Book Club post, traumatized by my experience at our monthly event. I forgot. Yup, I forgot to attend! So no run down on the opinions or my slant on the undercurrents within the group. And actually it’s no real loss as I didn’t even read the book. It was one of the books I dropped from my roster this year. So lets head back into 2012 and talk about the children’s selection we read that year.
The women who read with us in 2012 loved the idea of this book. It had a lot of buzz because it holds a Newbery Honor from the 2008 selection. It also involves Shakespeare, who personally makes my stomach roll, but whom most everyone else on the planet and in the good old US of A adores beyond reason. I do find the difficulties this child finds himself in to be particularly funny once you get into the story. If you can get into the story, which I eventually was able to due to a timely comment by a friend. I’m talking about The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt.
←This is the version of The Wednesday Wars I found. Needless to say I hadn’t a clue what the story was about from the cover graphics. It seemed like a cover to attract an adult, not a child – some stuck up adult that figures they know what a child should read and that’s the end of the matter. Read it they would.
I chose the other cover (below) simply because you know right away it’s about a kid in school and some obvious adventures he has, rats included.
The story is divided into months, the months our protagonist, Holling, spends in the 7th grade. After reading the first month I wanted to throw the book against the wall, stomp over and tear the cover from the book and burn it so no child would be forced to read the thing ever again…at least not that copy. A little overboard you protest…it’s just a kid’s book you rationalize…exactly I say, exactly! It’s a book a child will read, the minds most susceptible to wrong-headedness and bad examples.
Writing techniques does not a child make.
It worries me to no end that this book is a Newbery Honor choice. See it’s the run-on sentences. When one sentence takes half a page it’s too long. Every once in a while, in any book, you get a sentence like this and you think ‘wow, that’s really long’ but you move on and don’t encounter the like again. When you find yourself reading pages and pages of this kind of sentence you get terribly frustrated.
Then there is the duplication.
Now I get duplicating things in dialogue and every once in a while in a narrative to emphasize something really important. I even get using it in the case of this narrator, obviously Holling thinks many things are important. Great…but not when you also talk in long, long run on sentences. I don’t care if you think this is how a kid thinks. Even when there are periods the narrative flow doesn’t often change pace so you have this huge mouthful of words that overwhelm the reader.
On top of that a “chapter” is really a whole month, so there are few breaks in the action that allow for the ebb and flow of life. In a way this chapter a month works as a kid would summarize the high and low points, generalize the everyday. Imagine though, reading a whole page out loud in one long breath. Yeah, tantamount to impossible. That’s how these chapter months made you feel. Out of breath. Too swift. Aren’t kids today already growing up too fast?
Sorry, I’ve watched too many children to believe they’re characterized by run-on sentences, duplication and summarization.
The truth is I really love Holling Hoodhood.
After that first chapter a friend from book club who’d already finished, chided me for complaining about the run-on sentences. After that though I really adjusted my attitude toward the character. It’s not Holling’s fault that the writer of his 7th grade biography captured his thoughts straight from his head with no editing. I really focused on the plot and tried to experience what Holling experienced. I found that I really did care about Holling Hoodhood and wanted him to succeed in everything he did.
To this end the book became more or less successful. I thought it really cute how Holling applied Shakespeare to his life and how he bonded with Mrs. Baker, his teacher, through his own change in attitude toward the playwright. I really enjoyed how the author used events that might happen in the seventh grade to show Holling’s growth. By weaving these events over the whole school year each month built upon the one previous and yet didn’t feel a duplicate of a previous month. I loved the sudden introduction of the track team, the unexpected year-end camping trip and the development of his sister’s story arc.
Mrs. Baker stood out as the best aspect of the entire narrative. She’s really the best example for any teacher to pattern herself after. She felt fully fleshed out and developed and the best plot had her at the center of it. Spoilers alert!! The best moments of the book were when you found out her husband was missing and when you found out her husband had miraculously been found alive.
My biggest disappointment was in the character of Holling’s dad. I’d have really appreciated Schmidt fleshing out his dad with at least a single moment when the man wasn’t all bad. Many writers use this same technique, highlighting multiple characters as a single character. They do this to contrast those characters to one another. Here to show redemption in his mother, when she gives Holling the money he needs to get him and his sister back home on the train. To me people are people and at heart individuals. While I understand the reasons why a writer would use this technique I don’t agree with what it’s telling children.
As the months passed I found myself increasingly impressed by the way Schmidt focused on specific events to show Holling’s growth. The problem was the run-on sentences also suddenly ceased, the duplication became practically nonexistent and the pacing tightened. Turns out all these writing techniques were a gimmick, a jarring reminder of how Holling started out this journey. Meant to deliberately highlight how much this seventh grader had grown up because he suddenly fell in line and loved Shakespeare.
Does a writer’s gimmick ruin a book?
I call this a gimmick because it felt increasingly like the book was written for an adult to have a child read. The audience was supposed to be a seventh grader, 12 to 14 years old or as suggested at least 10 years of age. There seemed to be a huge advancement of Holling in the way he spoke, thought and believed all over the space of ten months. Increasingly his thoughts and conclusions seemed like ones a college aged person comes to as they leave home and begin to see how the real world works.
For many this will not be a problem in any way. A book is supposed to be a simulation of life not a duplication. I don’t disagree. I believe the writer chose 7th grade because it is at a cusp of life where all the elements he wanted to include could conceivably be believed with a modicum of suspension of disbelief.
Yet I can’t help but think that I certainly don’t want my child told what to believe.
I want him or her to be able to judge for themselves. To question the world and come out the other end being able to determine whether the ideas presented are fit to be a part of their ideology. To me this book presented life as something you get in line with. If you see things the way society says you should then great you’re a good person like Mrs. Baker and if not then you are like Holling’s dad, totally unredeemable.
The cover conundrum sums up how I felt about The Wednesday Wars. It’s a story written and presented for an adult to choose for a child. It’s meant to mimic a child so as to win them over to the position in the book. In the end, Holling Hoodhood did win me over. That doesn’t mean I was wrong about the writing techniques. It doesn’t mean I love Shakespeare any more than I did previous to his experiences. The Wednesday Wars is a great read for an adult, especially an adult who wants to inspire a child to love Shakespeare, who wants to think about their effect on their children. As for my child…no, Newbery Honor book or not.