It’s 1967 and Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that correctly) is in seventh grade at Camillo Junior High on Long Island. Holling’s dad is an architect who only shows concern for his architectural firm, keeping his house perfect, watching Walter Cronkite on television, and making his opinions about politics and the Vietnam war well understood by the rest of the Hoodhood family. Holling’s mother pretends she doesn’t smoke when she’s worked up and mostly tries to keep things at home perfect for Mr. Hoodhood. Heather, Holling’s 16-year-old sister listens to Pete Seeger and the Beatles, paints flowers on her face like the hippies do, and just wants the war in Vietnam to end. And Holling himself? As the only Presbyterian kid in his class, he spends Wednesday afternoons trapped in Mrs. Baker’s classroom while his Jewish and Catholic classmates attend temple and mass. What tortures does Mrs. Baker have in store for Holling? He’s sure that Wednesday afternoons will be filled with horrors only a middle school teacher could think up.
The Wednesday Wars is one of those rare novels that alternates between hilarious, thought-provoking, dramatic, heart-breaking, and emotionally fulfilling. During his Wednesday afternoons with Mrs. Baker, Holling discovers a love for Shakespeare. He is convinced that Mrs. Baker has never read Shakespeare, or else why would she assign him to read plays full of so much treachery, violence, corruption, and, best of all, very creative cussing? The themes of each Shakespearean play that Holling reads is woven into the rest of The Wednesday Wars (and not just the cussing). Holling relates his experiences at home, with his classmates, to the Vietnam war, and even to baseball to the themes, events, and characters in Shakespeare’s works. “Seamlessly, he knits together the story’s themes: the cultural uproar of the ’60s, the internal uproar of early adolescence, and the timeless wisdom of Shakespeare’s words” (Engberg 2007).
Author Gary D. Schmidt tells a story with some laugh-out-loud scenes, but the cultural and historical significance of many parts makes this well worth having any teen read. Readers will feel sympathy for Mai Thi, Holling’s classmate from Vietnam who was brought to the United States with the help of a Catholic relief group, and both Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Bigio, whose husbands are soldiers in Vietnam. Young readers may not fully understand all the political references, but Schmidt does a wonderful job of tying in various events, such as the protests at Columbia University and the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. The first few chapters start slowly, but things only get better from there. Holling Hoodhood is often a reluctant hero, as well as an awkward middle schooler, and he ultimately learns a lot about himself by the end of the book. In one poignant scene, Holling tells the reader, “You don’t want fire to go out inside you twice” (Schmidt 2007).
The Wednesday Wars was nominated for a Newbery Medal in 2008, , was a 2008 ALA Notable Book for Children, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year 2007. Reading the book is wonderful, but the audiobook read by Joel Johnstone is great fun to listen to. I alternated between the two, but did find myself carrying my phone with me from place to place so that I could listen to the book at work, in the car, and at home. The Wednesday Wars would be an excellent novel for students studying Shakespeare to read. Encourage students or book club participants to think of novels they have read that mention other books or authors. Ask them to try and find connections between historical events and things happening today. This may give them a better idea of how everything is connected.
Engberg, Gillian. June 2007. Booklist. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|17118227|13676788&mc=USA#. Accessed November 9, 2013.