I'm taking a break from reading "funny" middle grade books for research. (See this post for more explanation.) Hey, fifteen in a row is a little hard to take! My brain wants more substance.
For MMGM (brainchild of Shannon Messenger) and for Deb Marshall's May Middle Grade Reading Challenge, I've read three books that most people would consider more serious. Two of them I've read before, but not for many years.
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (Puffin paperback, 2000, hardcover published by Dutton in 1998, for ages 9 to 13)
Synopsis (from Indiebound): Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal
Shakespeare's play "Hamlet"--or else. Widge has no choice but to follow
orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where
Shakespeare's players perform.
Why I liked it: Plenty of action and intrigue. Widge is highly entertaining as he tells his story and there's an impressive amount of character growth here. The Elizabethan details are spot on. If you like historical fiction, and especially if you're a Karen Cushman fan, you'll love this book.
One caveat: Aye, Widge's broad Yorkshire dialect is a tad annoying. Once he moves to London and joins the Players, he learns to say "I think" instead of "I wis." But he continues to spout sentences like: "Oh, gis! 'A must ha' maggots in his brain!" (p. 196) If you're not fluent in Yorkshire, it takes a while to adjust.
I first read this book many years ago when I first started working at the bookstore, but never finished the trilogy (maybe it was that Yorkshire dialect). I re-read it because on a recent trip to the library I spied the second book on the shelf.
Shakespeare's Scribe by Gary Blackwood (Hardcover published by Dutton, 2000, for ages 9 to 13)
Synopsis (from Indiebound): When an outbreak of the deadly Black Plague closes the Globe Theatre,
William Shakespeare's acting troupe sets off on a tour of England.
Widge, the orphan-turned-actor, knows that he'll be useful on the trip.
Not only does he love the stage, but his knack for a unique shorthand
has proven him one of the most valuable apprentices in the troupe. But
then a mysterious man appears, claiming to know a secret from Widge's
past -- a secret that may forever force him from the theatre he loves.
Why I liked it: Now that Widge is firmly entrenched in Shakespeare's troupe of actors, I feel even more involved in the story. And learning more about his past is fascinating. I can't wait to read the third book, Shakespeare's Spy. Even that Yorkshire dialect gets easier to take after a while. Note: these books MUST be read in order.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Hardcover, J.B. Lippincott, Tasha Tudor illustrations, 1962, for ages 9 to 13).
Synopsis: If you don't know the plot by now, this is the beloved early-twentieth-century story of Mary Lennox, orphaned when her British parents die of cholera in India. She travels to Yorkshire to be the ward of her uncle Archibald. With nothing to do and no friends at first, spoiled, sickly Mary eventually discovers a secret garden and healing ensues.
My thoughts: I loved, no adored, this book as a ten-year-old and even older. I re-read it periodically, always in springtime when the buds are bursting into bloom on my cherry tree. I still have my much-loved 1962 edition with the gorgeous Tasha Tudor illustrations.
What did I think after this re-reading?
First, the racism really got to me. Anyone would be horrified at the way Mary describes the "natives" ("They're not people--they're servants who must salaam to you."). Apparently in 1911, when this book was written, this was acceptable. Makes me shudder, and realize how far we've come, thank goodness.
Second, oh, aye, tha' munnot fear, but it's that Yorkshire dialect! Burnett gives the apostrophe a good workout. As much as I love Dickon, the Yorkshire lad who befriends Mary, it's difficult to read his words ("There's naught as nice as th' smell o' good clean earth..."). And to think, I read this out loud to my kids twenty years ago. How did I do that?
Third, this book starts out with Mary as the main character, but by the end, Mary fades into the background and her cousin Colin is more important.
Despite these flaws, I still love the book for its hymn of praise to springtime and the healing power of running around in the fresh air. This is a wonderful time of year to read it. But if you know a middle grader who is reading it, you might consider discussing it with them.
Have you read The Secret Garden recently? What did you think?