Book Review: The Wednesday Wars
By: Gary D. Schmidt
Published By: Clarion Books
Publication Date: May 2007
Page Count: 264
Audience: Middle Grades/Young Adult - Historical Fiction
Every Wednesday afternoon is a battle for Holling Hoodhood. Every other kid in his class is either Catholic or Jewish and leaves early to attend Catechism or Hebrew School. As the lone Presbyterian, Holling must remain at school with Mrs. Baker, his English teacher. Holling is certain that Mrs. Baker hates him – the proof is that once she tires of tormenting his with classroom tasks like cleaning erasers, she begins to make him learn Shakespeare. The Wednesday Wars is everything you could possibly want in a late middle-grade/early YA book. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a tumultuous period of American history, with memorable characters, great dialog, recurring themes, teen angst, and Shakespeare!
Schmidt absolutely nails the voice of Holling, the seventh grade narrator of the story. I felt like I was listening to one of my own middle school aged sons when they really get rolling. Holling’s angsty rants are tempered with just the right amount of humor and bewilderment to keep him relatable to readers of any age (including my advanced age of 40+). His inner commentary and turmoil (get a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle vs. fulfill his obligation to play Ariel in a production of The Tempest) is utterly winning and believable.
I also loved how the larger setting of time period impinged on the story. Vietnam was a difficult and controversial time for America, but it doesn’t overwhelm Holling’s story. Rather it informs the actions of some of the characters in ways that Holling can see, but only slowly understands. There is also a Vietnamese girl in Holling’s class who had been settled in the US by a Catholic charity. Seeing Mai Thi acclimate and become one of Holling’s circle of friends was heartwarming and occasionally hilarious.
Every month from October on, Mrs. Baker has Holling reading, discussing, and taking tests on a different Shakespeare play during their Wednesday afternoons together. As Holling takes on each play he learns something that ends up having relevance to what is happening in his life. It’s not some too-pat, one to one correspondence, though. Schmidt makes Holling work for some of his realizations, and some of them are opposite of what the Bard intended. It wouldn’t be much of a war otherwise, right? And don’t fret, gentle reader, it isn’t necessary to have read all of the plays to enjoy The Wednesday Wars. If you know the stories, it’s a little more fun, but you’ll get enough context from Holling working through the plays to understand what’s going on.
Finally, I couldn’t get enough of Schmidt’s way of weaving certain people and things in and out and back into the story. Minor characters like Doug Swieteck and Mrs. Sidman, and Caliban and Sycorax (classroom pet rats) kept the story energy and potential for mishaps high. Repeating themes of cream puffs, Doug Swieteck’s brother, yellow tights, baseball, and the Monkees made me feel like I was in Holling’s circle of friends myself. Cleverly done, Gary Schmidt, cleverly done.
And yet with all this, there is even more if you want to talk about subplots. Will Holling get out from under his father’s expectations? Can he handle a first date with Meryl Lee, or will he torpedo himself? Will performing in The Tempest wearing yellow tights “with feathers on the butt!” condemn him forever as a middle school pariah? Will Holling make the track team? I have no idea how Schmidt managed to cram all of this into a book of fewer than 300 pages and have it not feel crowded, but he did.
I could blather on (even more) about how perfect this jewel of a book is. But I’d rather you just stop reading my review and go read The Wednesday Wars instead.
5 beautiful, bejeweled birdies!
P.S. Here’s the list of plays Holling had to read, if you’re interested: The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest (which apparently has the best insults), Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Much Ado about Nothing.
In this Newbery Honor-winning novel, Gary D. Schmidt offers an unforgettable antihero. The Wednesday Wars is a wonderfully witty and compelling story about a teenage boy’s mishaps and adventures over the course of the 1967–68 school year in Long Island, New York.
Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesn’t like Holling—he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation—the Big M—in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.