24 March 2011

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet

After reading The Weird Sisters I decided that I needed to visit a few other books where Shakespeare plays a role in the story - but not an adaptation.  I decided to start with a YA/MG book or two, hence The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet.

Hamlet Kennedy is having major family embarassment issues.  Her parents dress like sixteenth-century denziens - they are reknowned Shakespearean scholars after all - and her super-genius baby sister Desdemonda (aka Dezzie) has enrolled in public school, for the first time ever, in Hamlet's grade, even though Dezzie is only seven, because Dezzie needs the art and music exposure she hasn't quite gotten from her tutors at home.  And Hamlet has to make sure Dezzie makes it through the morning...read: babysitter.  Hamlet's trying to fly under the radar - she's having a hard enough time just blending in and avoiding attention - but it looks like Hamlet has a hidden talent of her own: acting.

If I were eleven or twelve reading this book, I wouldn't bat an eye at the oddness of the parents' clothing or the very strange gamut of childrens' names in the book (I'm not talking about Hamlet or Dezzie, but there is a dearth of Jennifers, Emmas, Jasons, etc).  It is what it is.  But as an adult...I know a goodly number of Shakespearean scholars, some quite famous, and none of them wear Elizabethan or Jacobean costume as everyday clothing every single day.  Most of them wouldn't wear it even to a Shakespeare festival.  So to me, it comes off as far-fetched but it does help heighten Hamlet's anxiety that people will tease her about her parents.

I chuckled quite a lot (mostly to myself) while reading this one.  We all remember junior high - awkwardness, confidence issues, booby-traps everywhere (laid by the "mean girls"; why were the "popular girls" always the mean ones?) - so any adult can relate to Hamlet's continued consternation that her parents and her sister are out to ruin her life simply by being themselves (like showing up to school to pick up Dezzie in an Elizabethan neck ruff and cape with bells).  Which makes it harder for Hamlet to attempt to avoid attention/teasing.  She hears a lot of "oink"-ing because of her name and finds origami pigs (which are quite well-executed) in her locker.  Dezzie ends up making "friends" with Hamlet's worst enemies - the "mean girls" - leading to a pretty wicked family feud but a pretty awesome comeuppance in the end.

I quite liked how A Midsummer Night's Dream was integrated into the book.  It is presented as a combined English and history block project for Hamlet's class.  This is how Hamlet's hidden talent comes to life: she is asked to recite in class (*shame* who remembers having to read aloud in class? *shame*) and it turns out she is good at it.  Very good.  So good, in fact, that she is cast as Puck in the class production of the play.  The lines from the play are included in the book as Hamlet or other classmates read them so the reader has to read them, too.  A great way for kids to add to their vocabulary and get a little Shakespeare.


  1. I just started doing Midsummer with my 7th graders. I think I'll look this title up. It would be nice to add a fun little novel to my Shakespeare unit.

  2. Yay! :) It's not a very long book.