The Wednesday Wars is another hidden gem in this year’s Lovelace nominees. It is the story of 7th grader Holling Hoodhood. The story takes place in the late 1960’s, allowing an atmosphere of racial and political change to provide the backdrop for Holling’s personal struggle to find his own way through growing up.
The “Wednesday Wars” of the title refers to Wednesday afternoons at school when the Catholic children leave school early to attend catechism classes at the church and the Jewish children are excused to attend Hebrew school at the local temple. Holling is Presbyterian and as such he is the only student to remain in the classroom on Wednesday afternnoon–requiring his teacher, Mrs. Baker, to remain as well. Holling is convinced that it is for this reason that Mrs. Baker hates him. He even goes so far as to believe she has enlisted the help of some 8th grade boys to facilitate his demise.
As the school year progresses Holling begins to realize (along with the reader) that there is much more to Mrs. Baker than he expected. She has a remarkable history and life outside the confines of the classroom. These gradual revelations shock Holling and cause him to question some of his previous assumptions.
When Mrs. Baker begins to read Shakespeare with him on their Wednesday afternoons Holling is convinced this is part of her ‘I hate Holling’ campaign but discovers he likes some of Shakespeare’s stories. He begins to realize Shakespeare’s work can provide him with some startling insight into many aspects of his own life. This realization is subtle and interwoven with the events of Holling’s story, thereby making it believeable for the reader.
The author is able to speak in a quiet and powerful voice about racism and injustice as Holling’s family members, teachers and fellow students are affected in various ways by the ongoing Vietnam war. Holling’s observations of the kindness, injustice, tragedy and joy around him, coupled with the way in which he compares and contrasts these observations with Shakespeare’s characters and language allow the reader to do the same, reflecting on his or her own life situation.
I am especially touched by the relationship that grows between Holling and Mrs. Baker–the gift that it is to both of them. (This could be because I am a teacher and I am reading the book as an adult; I am interested to hear thoughts from younger readers on this.)
This book has a wealth of insightful opportunities to offer both young and older readers. I found it to be ultimately uplifting and hopeful. Gary Schmidt has given his readers a wonderful handhold in finding their own personal courage to become the person each of us is meant to be in our lifetime. I absolutely recommend this book for middle grade through adult readers!