As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.
To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham
Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.
Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.
For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.
It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.
Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.
Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.
They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.
The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones
With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.
Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.
The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.
The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.
The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.
The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.
Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley
A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.
Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.
It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.
The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.
The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.
Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones
It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.
After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.
The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:
“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”
The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.
Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones
This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.
This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.
It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.