Thursday, October 15, 2009

Historical Fiction--The Wednesday Wars

Bibliographic Data
Schmidt, Gary D. The Wednesday Wars. New York: Clarion Books, 2007. ISBN 9780618724833.

Plot Summary
It's 1967, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. But seen through Holling Hoodhood's eyes, the war is minor compared to his personal affairs. Holling doesn't know what to think of his life. His 7th grade English teacher hates him and makes him read Shakespeare. His sister is a flower child and is always arguing with their conservative father. His father, a successful architect, assumes Holling will take over the family business one day. But nobody seems to care what Holling wants. Through his firsthand account of the humorous events which seem to befall only him, Holling finds his own identity and does some growing up along the way.

Critical Analysis
It’s 1967, and the Vietnam War is going strong. But Holling Hoodhood barely notices. He’s got problems of his own to worry about. But this year, something will happen to Holling, something he never expected. Holling is about to meet the Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare. And with the Bard’s words to guide him, Holling will never be the same.

The story is written in the first person narrative, and it is a monthly accounting of Holling’s 7th grade school year. Due to unavoidable circumstances, Holling and his 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Baker, are in class by themselves for the last hour of each Wednesday, and Holling is convinced that Mrs. Baker hates his guts.

          “So, being a Presbyterian was now a disaster. Especially on
          Wednesday afternoons when, at 1:45 sharp, half of my class
          went to Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El, and, at 1:55, the
          other half went to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s. This left
          behind just the Presbyterians—of which there had been three,
          and now there was one.

          Me” (3).

The story is set in Long Island, New York. Holling lives in a medium sized town, and his father, a successful architect, is constantly trying to place situations and people from town into the context of his architectural practice. If they can’t lead to more architectural jobs, they’re not worth Mr. Hoodhood’s time and energy.


          “So, Holling, what did you do that might make Mrs.
          Baker hate your guts, which will make other Baker family
          members hate the name of Hoodhood, which will lead the
          Baker Sporting Emporium to choose another architect, which
          will kill the deal for Hoodhood and Associates, which will drive
          us into bankruptcy, which will encourage several lending
          institutions around the state to send representatives to our
          stoop holding papers that have lots of leg words on them—
          none of them good—and which will mean that there will be no
          Hoodhood and Associates for you to take over when I'm ready
          to retire?”

          Even though there wasn’t much left of [dinner], it started to
          want to come up again.

          “I guess things aren’t so bad,” I said.

          “Keep them that way,” he said” (8)

Mrs. Baker finally settles on Shakespeare to pass the time on Wednesday afternoons. This serves to convince Holling now more than ever that Mrs. Baker hates his guts. But it’s through the time that Mrs. Baker spends with Holling, discussing Shakespeare’s words and meanings that he begins to make sense of what else is happening in his life.

Because Holling is familiar with Shakespeare, he gets a part in the Festival Theater’s performance of The Tempest. When pictures of him playing the part surface at his school (With him wearing yellow tights. And white feathers on his butt!), more problems result. His sister’s on his case about the photos, his classmates want to stick up for him but are too afraid of the bully who did it. And Mrs. Baker goes on to Macbeth.

Through one incident after another, one Shakespeare play after another, Holling finally starts to make sense of things. He makes the astonishing discovery that Mrs. Baker doesn’t hate him after all. He and Mrs. Baker establish a secret code word between the two of them, “Chrysanthemum for something really good” (170). He makes the varsity track team and Mrs. Baker (who turns out to have won a silver medal for running in the 1956 Olympics) coaches him.

          “Mrs. Baker leaned back in her chair. “It was for the women’s four-by-one
          hundred relay. Don’t look so surprised. You didn’t think I’d spent my whole life
          behind this desk, did you?”

          And I suddenly realized that, well, I guess I had. Weren’t all teachers born
          behind their desks, fully grown, with a red pen in their hand and ready to

          “Go home now, Mr. Hoodhood,” said Mrs. Baker. “And tomorrow,
          run like Jesse Owens”” (170).

A sure sign you’re growing up is when you realize your teacher is a person, too.

Another sign you’re growing up is when you realize you make your own decisions about becoming a man, not your father. After Mrs. Baker, Holling’s father and sister are the next most important minor characters. Holling’s father is dictatorial and believes that his way is the only way. Holling’s sister, Heather, picks on him and insults him like most big sisters and is constantly fighting with her father, trying to assert her independence and make him see that other people might have important opinions also. By the end of the story, Holling has overcome his fear of confronting his father, and he finds out his sister really does love him and is even proud of him.

Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King make short appearances in the story also, as the news of their assassinations deeply affects Holling.

At his friend Danny’s Bar Mitzvah at the end of the story, Holling finally realizes he can live his own life, not the life his father has planned for him.

          “”It was a whole lot more than chanting at everyone,” I said.

          “Let’s get in the car,” said my mother.

          “No,” said my father. He put his arms up on top of the station
          wagon’s roof. “I’d like to know what Holling thought was a whole
          lot more.”

          My stomach got tight. “He became a man,” I said.

          “You think that’s how you become a man, by chanting a few

          “You think you become a man by getting a job as an architect?”

          My father straightened. “That’s exactly how you become a man,”
          he said. “You get a good job and you provide for your family. You
          hang on, and you play for keeps. That’s how it works.”

          “I really do think we should get in the car,’ said my mother.

          “I don’t think so,” I said to my father. “It’s not just about a job.
          It’s more. It has to do with choosing for yourself.”

          “And you didn’t even have to go to California to figure all that
          out,” said my father. “So who are you, Holling?”

          I felt Heather looking at me. And somehow—I didn’t know how—
          I thought of Bobby Kennedy, who could have made all the

          “I don’t know yet,” I said finally. “I’ll let you know.”

          “What a bunch of mumbo-jumbo,” said my father. He got into
          the station wagon and slammed the door. My mother blew me a
          kiss—really—and then she got in, too.

          And my sister got in last of all.

          She was smiling.

          I could hardly breathe.

          When they drove away, I went back inside Temple Beth-

Back inside the synagogue, Holling’s classmates are all still at Danny’s Bar Mitzvah. Mrs. Baker is there also.

          “Everyone was laughing and jostling to their places. I needed to
          go find mine.

          “L’chayim!” I said to Mrs. Baker.

          “And she smiled—not a teacher smile. “Chrysanthemum,” she
                    said“ (260).

The theme of this story is man vs. man (Holling vs. his dad, Holling vs. Mrs. Baker, Holling vs. the bully), but ultimately, it’s a story of man vs. himself. Danny wasn’t the only boy who became a man that day.

While reading this story, I couldn’t help but think of my older brother. He is Holling’s age, and I wonder if he was as aware of the Vietnam War as Holling. To me, it’s terribly ironic that Holling thinks the war is wrong, but my brother came very close to serving in Vietnam. The war ended in April of 1975 and my brother graduated one month later.

Awards and Honors
  • Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007; Winner Best Novel for Young Readers That Adults Would Love if They Knew About It United States.
  • Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007; Winner Book We Could Have Sold More of with a Better Jacket United States.
  • Cuffies: Children's Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007; Winner Favorite Middle Grade Novel United States.
  • Cybils, 2007; Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States.
  • John Newbery Medal, 2008; Honor Book United States.
  • National Parenting Publications Award, 2007; Gold Book Ages 12 & Up United States.
  • Society of Midland Authors Book Awards, 2008; Winner Children's Fiction United States.
  • Thumbs Up! Award, 2008; Nominee United States.
  • Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; YALSA American Library Association; United States.
  • Best Books for Young People, 2007; Washington Post; United States.
  • Best Young Adult Books, 2007; Kirkus; United States.
  • Children's Book Sense Picks , Summer 2007; American Booksellers Association; United States.
  • Editors' Choice, 2007; Booklist; United States.
  • Notable Children's Books in the English Language Arts, 2008; NCTE Children's Literature Assembly; United States.
  • Notable Children's Books, 2008; ALSC American Library Association; United States.
  • Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books, 2007; Cahners; United States.
    Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, April 16, 2007; Type Cahners; United States.
  • Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth, 2008; Booklist; United States.
Review Excerpts
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Jun. 1, 2007 (Vol. 103, No. 19))
"On Wednesday afternoons, while his Catholic and Jewish schoolmates attend religious instruction, Holling Hoodhood, the only Presbyterian in his seventh grade, is alone in the classroom with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who Holling is convinced hates his guts. He feels more certain after Mrs. Baker assigns Shakespeare’s plays for Holling to discuss during their shared afternoons. Each month in Holling’s tumultuous seventh-grade year is a chapter in this quietly powerful coming-of-age novel set in suburban Long Island during the late ’60s.... {Schmidt} 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. Holling’s unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open."

Elizabeth Bush (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, September 2007 (Vol. 61, No. 1))
"Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian at Camillo Junior High, a condition that would have no significance at all except for the fact that, on Wednesdays, Catholic and Jewish kids are dismissed early for religious instruction, leaving Holling as the lone remaining student in Mrs. Baker’s seventh-grade class. She’s as perplexed as he as to how “the class” should proceed, and they settle uneasily into a routine of reading successive Shakespeare plays, which Holling interprets as a sure sign that Mrs. Baker hates him. Nonetheless, over the course of the school year—as divided into monthly chapters and narrated by Holling—they form a bond of friendship that sees him through rough patches at home with his bombastic father and flower-child sister and Mrs. Baker through the ordeal of awaiting news of her husband, who has just gone MIA in Vietnam."

Kathie Fitch (VOYA, June 2007 (Vol. 30, No. 2))
"Seventh grader Holling Hoodhood lives in the Long Island suburbs in the Perfect House with his less-than-perfect, architect father, his subservient mother, and his flower-child sister. On Wednesday afternoon, half of his class leaves for Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El while the other half goes to catechism. Holling is the lone Presbyterian so he stays behind with his teacher, Ms. Baker, whom Holling knows hates him. She introduces him to the plays of William Shakespeare, an assignment that Holling assumes is punishment but which actually enhances his life. There is a lot going on in this novel not all related to the politics of the turbulent 1960s. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and the unpopular Vietnam War play a part in Holling's seventh grade year but so do two rats, Sycorax and Calliban, with their clacking yellow teeth; a part as Ariel in yellow tights; a track team; bullying and racism; a camping trip; and disappointment in a first love. Ms. Baker gently guides him through everything even as she brokenheartedly deals with the news that her husband is MIA."

Book Hook or discussion questions
  • If you want to read more from Gary D. Schmidt, try Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.
  • For more stories about a funny relationship between a student and his teacher, read Frindle (Clements, 1996) or Don't You Know There's a War On? (Avi, 2001).
Online Connections
For information on Shakespeare's life and times, click here.
For information on the Vietnam War (from PBS), click here.
For a video of Bobby Kennedy's speech announcing Martin Luther King's assassination, click here.

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