Every once in a while I am prompted by Twitter to read a book. Obviously there is an endless stream of books recommended by publishers, bloggers and readers, but sometimes a book catches my eye and the discussion on Twitter prompts me to check it out.
This is how I stumbled on the work of Gary D. Schmidt. Everyone was talking about his new book Okay for Now and when I went to check it out it seemed very much in my wheelhouse. But I thought it would be worth it to check out the prior book of which OFN is sort of a spin off. So I grabbed The Wednesday Wars from the library and started reading.
It turned out to be a great book. Just a wonderful story full of great characters, powerful emotions and quite a bit of wisdom. This is an example of what young adult writing can be – literature to my mind.
It offers a great coming of age story but also explores growing up on Long Island in the late sixties and what that era – the time, place and events that made it up – might have meant to junior high students and the adults around them.
Publishers blurb? Publishers blurb:
Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesn’t like Holling—he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation—the Big M—in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.
There are a number of ways this book could have gone wrong: too cheesy; the “serious” elements could have felt tacked on or interrupted the story; it could have felt like a poor attempt at returning to Leave It To Beaver; etc.
But amazingly the book avoids these pitfalls – or at least did for me – and instead comes across as a heartfelt, touching and quite funny story. For me it got two things right: the perspective of lead character and the portrayal of the times.
In many ways it is a universal story – classic coming of age – set in midst of school, town and family. Who can’t relate to this setting? But the book is about a lot more that putting up with bullies and finding your way in junior high.
Holling came across as just right: smart but not too smart for his age; awkward but with the ability to break through that awkwardness; growing up in fits and starts; very much self focused as kids that age are but with a good heart that leads him occasionally to see more. This is a character that felt authentic and made you care about him and his decisions.
Schimdt also manages to use the historical time period – Vietnam, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. etc. – to bring in a serious side but also to give the non-junior high characters some depth. It also reminds the reader that there are lots of serious things going on in the world and they impact even those seemingly innocent junior high kids.
Schmidt brings the times and the setting to life. The school, the town, the region and the historical period all come off as real and holistic (tied together in the way they are in “real” life).
This is a depth that isn’t always there for this age group. The adults are not just stock characters and, like Holling, are complex and layered. The book brings you back to the perspective of junior high while at the same time offering insights into relationships and community, education and literature – not to be to grandiose but what it means to be human.
Is there some nostalgia involved? Yes, perhaps, but it is the right kind of nostalgia the kind seeking after the true and beautiful; after important things that we risk losing if we don’t recognize them and hold on to them.
The Wednesday Wars is a wholesome – and I mean that as a compliment – insightful story that uses the lens of the past as a way to think about the present and future.