Monday, May 20, 2013

Aye, methinks it's a Yorkshire post

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? 

22 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed The Shakespeare Stealer and Shakespeare's Scribe, but then I love anything Shakespeare. I never read The Secret Garden. I may be the only person on the planet who hasn't read it. It sounds like some things in it might be hard to take, but maybe I'll give it a try.

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    1. Yay for Shakespeare! Rosi, I'm amazed you've never read The Secret Garden. If you keep in mind when it was written, you'll still find plenty to love there.

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  2. I've read The Secret Garden (but not until I was an adult and read it aloud to my two kids). Since we read it aloud, there were ample opportunities to discuss what it said and when it was written (and how things were considered 'normal' that aren't anymore), but we were still able to love the story for the story's sake.

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    1. Since I read the book to myself the very first time, I probably skimmed through the passages written in broad Yorkshire dialect.

      As for reading it aloud, maybe you're better at different accents than I am!

      But I'm glad you found lots of opportunities to discuss what's changed in our society. Good for kids to know.

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  3. Although I'm familiar with the story, I've never read The Secret Garden. It's amazing how we can re-read something as an adult and come away with something entirely different than we did as a child. And as for kids today, I think it's important for them to understand the way things were in the past and why they aren't that way anymore. They can handle a lot more than we often think. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Ah, Rosi will be happy that she's not the only one who hasn't read it. You've brought up a good point, Michelle, and I actually think every time I read a book, I'm a different person, so I might have a different reaction.

      Yep. Kids are pretty smart!

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  4. I have been thinking of purchasing a new copy of The Little Princess, but should probably reread it before I do. I have a hard time getting students to read Shakespeare's Scribe-- we used to have a teacher who adored the book, but now it sits on the shelf.

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    1. Now there's a book I haven't read in at least 20 years. Wonder if I would still like it?

      How interesting that students won't read the Blackwood book unless a teacher who loves it pushes it on them.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. I loved The Secret Garden as a kid but haven't re-read it. I might not like it as much as I'd notice the racism like you. Awesome you re-read The Shakespere Stealer again and found you liked it enough to read book 2. Sometimes I don't like a book when I'm not in the right mood. If I pick it up later, I sometimes find I like it more. It's finding the time to do that.

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    1. Good point, Natalie. You do need to be in the right mood for some books.

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  6. I remember enjoying The Secret Garden as a kid and I believe I didn't care much for the dialect though. I wonder how I'm going to feel about the whole book now.
    Now for The Shakespere series they are new to me so I'm adding them to my forever growing list. Thank you. :)

    ~Akoss

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  7. I remember seeing the Blackwood books, but I've never read them. They sound worth picking up.

    I loved all of Burnett's books--The Little Princess is probably my favourite. Your comment about racism made me go back to The Secret Garden for a quick look. I think all the times I read it, I took Mary's comments about the "Natives" to be more evidence of her flawed, unpleasant personality that has to be fixed. I assumed the author intended us to deplore her attitude. But I imagine it would be painful for a lot of people to read it, no matter what the author's intentions.

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    1. Kim, you're absolutely right and I realized that Burnett was showing Mary's imperious nature. But even the Yorkshire maid, Martha (sister of Dickon) revealed the author's racism when she talked on p. 28 to 29 about "blacks."

      Another vote for The Little Princess. I may have to re-read that next.

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  8. Great choices! I think I would like them all! :D

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    1. Start with The Shakespeare Stealer, Erik. And remember to let me know what you think!

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  9. Oh, The Secret Garden...I read it half a dozen times as a kid and half that much as an adult, but I still love it. I felt that Burnett was trying to make a point with Mary's racism, rather than condone it in any way--after all, Mary was pretty annoying all around for a bit.
    Speaking of Yorkshire dialect, I've been re-reading James Herriot's books and trying to read Redwall aloud to my daughter--they're both pretty generous with their apostrophes, too. :)

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    1. Faith, as I said to Kim above, it wasn't just Mary. But yeah, she's pretty annoying in the beginning!

      I'd forgotten the Yorkshire dialect in James Herriot, but I remember loving those books. I've never read Redwall. (*hides head in shame*)

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  10. I have had the first book you reviewed on my shelf for ages, but haven't picked it up. It was nice to learn more about it here. :) I had no idea there was a second book in the series, and that one sounds even better.

    The Secret Garden has always been a favorite of mine. I reread it a few years ago, but maybe it is time for another rereading. Thanks for the reviews!
    ~Jess

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    1. Hope you get a chance to read The Shakespeare Stealer, Jess.

      The Secret Garden seems to be a favorite of a lot of people!

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  11. Thanks for calling attention to those Shakespeare books. My kids loved them. I'd only read the first but I loved it because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland was a big part of my childhood, and I don't mind the dialect at all. I wonder if kids who have exposure to Shakespeare--free plays in the park for example--would be more open to the books. Another Shakespeare book I enjoyed was King of Shadows.

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    1. You may be right, Roseanne. Kids who've seen Shakespeare plays would definitely be more open to books like these. Good point.

      Yes! I LOVED The King of Shadows! Time travel and Shakespeare. And it's by Susan Cooper, who wrote my all-time favorite fantasy series, The Dark is Rising.

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