Author Gary Schmidt's Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004) was that rare book that appealed to both teenagers and younger readers. An eloquent, beautifully written novel based on the destruction of an African-American community in Maine in 1912, it came as no surprise that it earned both a Printz and Newbery honor.
Now, with Schmidt's new novel, The Wednesday Wars, he has achieved something equally rare: a book that manages to be an accessible, humorous school story, and at the same time an insightful coming-of-age tale set during one of the most turbulent times in 20th-century America.
Like his 12-year-old protagonist, Holling Hoodhood, author Gary Schmidt grew up on Long Island. Schmidt's own school recollections include vivid memories of a middle school teacher named Mrs. Baker. Holling also has a teacher named Mrs. Baker, and as the book—and the school year—open, he's convinced she has it in for him:
Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun.
On Wednesdays, you see, everyone in the seventh grade—except Holling—is excused early to go to weekly religious classes. Half the class is Catholic; the other half, Jewish. Holling, being the only Presbyterian, is left behind to be the bane of his teacher's existence.
"Just as in the book, I really was the only one in class for the last couple of hours every Wednesday afternoon. But my Mrs. Baker really did hate me," notes the affable Schmidt, a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. "After all, I was standing between my teacher and freedom—early release every Wednesday."
Like his young hero, Schmidt breathed in his share of chalk dust cleaning erasers on those Wednesday afternoons. But unlike young Holling, he most definitely did not spend the year exploring the plays of Shakespeare, gaining a fuller appreciation of his teachers as adults with their own trials and problems, and coming to terms with complex school and family relationships. Most especially, the author did not have to grapple with two gigantic, escape-artist rats named Sycorax and Caliban. "I haven't told you about Sycorax and Caliban yet, and you might want to skip over this next part, since it's pretty awful," Holling courteously warns readers.
Holling's year in seventh grade takes place in 1967-1968, a time of social upheaval in America. Although the timeframe does not correspond to Schmidt's own seventh-grade year, his choice was deliberate.
"This was one of our country's most violent years, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam dominated the evening news, with 250 soldiers being shipped home in body bags every week," says Schmidt.
To better understand this era, Schmidt did extensive research. "I read The New York Times for the entire time that is covered in the novel. And although this was not in any way meant to be a book about Iraq, over the past three years as I was writing it, I was struck by the similarities to headlines today."
Although the issues in The Wednesday Wars are serious—prejudice, the backdrop of Vietnam, uncertain family and school relationships—Holling is a self-aware, engaging narrator, and the situations he relates are often laugh-out-loud funny.
There are those rats, of course. And there's also the matter of Holling's costume for his debut as Ariel the Fairy in the Long Island Shakespeare Company's Holiday Extravaganza. "I got through the whole dress rehearsal playing Ariel the Fairy while wearing bright yellow tights with white feathers on the . . . well, I might as well say it—butt. There. On my butt!" Holling tells readers. "White feathers waving on my butt."
"I wanted to try something different by writing in a colloquial voice," says Schmidt, noting how different The Wednesday Wars is in style from Lizzie Bright. "I also wanted to show the mixture between drama and comedy, sad moments and silly ones. That's how we live our lives:really ping-ponging back and forth."
One of the most poignant relationships in the book is that of Holling and his father, an architect with ambition. Holling's father rules "the Perfect House," which is scrupulously maintained to outshine every other house on the block. He's also determined to be the head of a perfect family, which inevitably leads to conflicts with Holling and his older sister.
While at the outset Holling is simply "the Son Who Is Going to Inherit Hoodhood and Associates," by the end of the school year he has begun to develop the courage to stand up for the right to choose his own future.
"The idea for this book originally came to me as one simple image," Schmidt explains. "I could see a kid running, with a teacher standing on the sidelines, shouting encouragement."
That scene does, in fact, make it into this rich and multilayered story. It occurs toward the end of the school year, in April. And it is well worth waiting for, both for readers and for Holling, who has begun to realize just how special his Wednesdays with Mrs. Baker have been.
One thing readers will not have to wait too long for is another book by Schmidt, who somehow manages to balance being the father of six children, a professor of English and one of the most talented and thought-provoking writers for young people.
The next novel, he promises, is already done. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2007 Fall
Every Wednesday, Holling (who believes teachers are "born behind their desks") stays with Mrs. Baker who, as he sees it, uses the time for special torture. Ultimately, Mrs. Baker steps forward as a multilayered individual who helps Holling follow his own path. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Schmidt's novel rises above its conventions through memorable, believable characters. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2008 Spring
Every Wednesday, Holling (who believes teachers are "born behind their desks") stays with Mrs. Baker who, as he sees it, uses the time for special torture. Ultimately, Mrs. Baker steps forward as a multilayered individual who helps Holling follow his own path. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Schmidt's novel rises above its conventions through memorable, believable characters. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #4
Entering seventh grade, Holling Hoodhood knows all about teachers. They're "born behind their desks, fully grown, with a red pen in their hand and ready to grade." And the worst of them hate your guts, which is precisely the way he believes Mrs. Baker feels about him. Every Wednesday afternoon, when the rest of his class leaves early to attend Hebrew school or catechism class, Holling, the lone Presbyterian, stays behind with Mrs. Baker. As Holling sees it, she uses the extra time for special torture, ranging from cleaning out rat cages to diagramming impossibly convoluted sentences to reading Shakespeare. That the two will grow to respect each other is a predictable trope, but the alliance nevertheless becomes convincing and winning. Insistently in the background is the Vietnam War: Mrs. Baker's husband is missing in action at Khesanh; the school's cook loses her husband in the conflict; the presence of a Vietnamese refugee in the class triggers hatred and bigotry. At home, Holling's sister supports the peace movement and women's rights; his father puts his architectural business above all; and his mother passively acquiesces to Mr. Hoodhood. Ultimately, Mrs. Baker steps out from behind her desk as a multilayered individual who helps Holling (often through their discussions of Shakespeare's plays) to dare to choose his own ending rather than follow the dictates of others. Schmidt rises above the novel's conventions to create memorable and believable characters. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 May #2
It's 1967, and on Wednesdays, every Jewish kid in Holling Hoodhood's class goes to Hebrew School, and every Catholic kid goes to Catechism. Holling is Presbyterian, which means that he and Mrs. Baker are alone together every Wednesday--and she hates it just as much as he does. What unfolds is a year of Wednesday Shakespeare study, which, says Mrs. Baker, "is never boring to the true soul." Holling is dubious, but trapped. Schmidt plaits world events into the drama being played out at Camillo Junior High School, as well as plenty of comedy, as Holling and Mrs. Baker work their way from open hostility to a sweetly realized friendship. Holling navigates the multitudinous snares set for seventh-graders--parental expectations, sisters, bullies, girls--with wry wit and the knowledge that the world will always be a step or two ahead of him. Schmidt has a way of getting to the emotional heart of every scene without overstatement, allowing the reader and Holling to understand the great truths swirling around them on their own terms. It's another virtuoso turn by the author of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2005). (Fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 April #3
On the first day of the 1967-68 school year, Holling Hoodhood thinks he's made a mortal enemy of his new teacher when it turns out he's the only seventh-grader who does not leave early every Wednesday to attend Hebrew school or catechism. (Holling is Presbyterian, and though eminently likeable, he does have a knack for unintentionally making enemies.) Stern Mrs. Baker first gives him custodial duties, but after hilarious if far-fetched catastrophes involving chalk dust, rats and freshly baked cream puffs, she switches to making him read Shakespeare. He overcomes his initial horror, adopting the Bard's inventive cursing as his own to dress down schoolyard bullies. Indeed standing up for himself is the real battle Holling is waging, especially at home, where his architect father has the entire family under his thumb. Schmidt, whose Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy won both Printz and Newbery Honors, delivers another winner here, convincingly evoking 1960s Long Island, with Walter Cronkite's nightly updates about Vietnam as the soundtrack. The serious issues are leavened with ample humor, and the supporting cast--especially the wise and wonderful Mrs. Baker--is fully dimensional. Best of all is the hero, who shows himself to be more of a man than his authoritarian father. Unlike most Vietnam stories, this one ends happily, as Schmidt rewards the good guys with victories that, if not entirely true to the period, deeply satisfy. Ages 10-14. (May)[Page 49]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 5-8-- This entertaining and nuanced novel limns Holling Hoodhood's seventh-grade year in his Long Island community, beginning in the fall of 1967. His classmates, half of whom are Jewish, the other half Catholic, leave early on Wednesdays to attend religious training. As the sole Presbyterian, he finds himself stranded with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, whom he's sure has it in for him. She starts off creating mindless chores for him but then induces him to read Shakespeare--lots of Shakespeare. Chapters titled by month initially seem overlong, relating such diverse elements as two terrifying escaped rats, cream puffs from a local bakery, his dad being a cheapskate/cutthroat architect, and Holling's tentative and sweet relationship with classmate Meryl Lee. The scary Doug Swieteck, and his even more frightening brother, and the Vietnam War are recurring menaces. A subplot involves a classmate who, as a recent Vietnamese refugee, is learning English and suffers taunts and prejudice. Cross-country tryouts, rescuing his older runaway sister, and opening day at Yankee Stadium are highlights. There are laugh-out-loud moments that leaven the many poignant ones as Schmidt explores many important themes, not the least of which is what makes a person a hero. The tone may seem cloying at first and the plot occasionally goes over-the-top, but readers who stick with the story will be rewarded. They will appreciate Holling's gentle, caring ways and will be sad to have the book end.--Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA[Page 110]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.