If I were the only kid in my class who had to stay at school on Wednesday afternoons while half my class when to Catechism and the other half to Hebrew school, I might think my teacher was out to get me, too. Especially if she started assigning me extra work...boo. This, precisely, is seventh grader Holling Hoodhood's predicament in 1967 Long Island. He's Presbyterian, so no religious school on Wednesdays, and, after an ill-timed incident with baked goods, open windows, and chalkboard erasers (not to mention the incident with the escapee classroom rats), Holling's teacher Mrs. Baker assigns him The Merchant of Venice. See, Mrs. Baker is totally out to get him because extra-homework, and Shakespeare no less, means your teacher hates your guts - it's The Wednesday Wars.
Except, Holling takes a shine to Merchant. He gets hooked on the villainous aspects of Shylocks character until a discussion with Mrs. Baker makes him realise that Shylock may be the victim instead. Mrs. Baker next assigns The Tempsest. He finds that there are many, many colorful curses in the play - curses no one seems to know, like "pied ninny" - and Holling gets a kick out of muttering them to himself. He even teaches them to one of the ornerier kids in his class. So Mrs. Baker makes him read the play again and discuss it with her. And then, one thing leading to another, Holling winds up cast as Ariel in a local production of The Tempest when the baker finds out Holling can recite Shakespeare. Mrs. Baker keeps assigning Holling a new play every few months throughout the year and Holling finds that Shakespeare (and Mrs. Baker) can surprise you.
The Wednesday Wars is an excellent work of historical fiction for kids. The Vietnam War and many historical events during the 1967-68 school year create an excellent framework for the novel. Mrs. Baker's husband is MIA in Vietnam; a classmate, Mai Thi, is a Vietnamese orphan raised by a Catholic organization; Holling's sister openly opposes the war and the establishment; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy impact several characters; Yankees baseball is a cherished topic of conversation (particularly the stats from that year). Holling starts the journey toward adulthood this year and, in a way, Shakespeare helps him understand the adult world.
Schmidt does well to balance the sobering reality of his time period with humor that would appeal to an elementary school or middle-grade reader. Slapstick and a little gross-out humor (the classroom rats Sycorax and Caliban falling through the ceiling or eating the cream puffs, the list of ways to annoy teachers, the fermented holiday cider, etc) make Holling relatable; he is just a seventh grader after all, not an adult. Those who don't laugh over Holling's alarm at having to wear a yellow unitard with white feathers on the derriere lack a sense of humor. Schmidt warms the heart, too, when you least expect it. Those who don't shed a tear when Holling comforts his sister when Bobby Kennedy is assassinated or when Mai Thi is adopted by the character least expected...well, those readers lack any sort of heart.
*Schmidt's new book, OK for Now, releases April 05, 2011, and follows class-prankster Doug Swieteck (Audubon and Jane Eyre are involved, so I've heard); there is a third book planned for the series that follows Meryl Lee from The Wednesday Wars.