Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: 'Wednesday Wars' by Gary D. Schmidt

   'The Wednesday Wars' was published in 2007, and awarded a Newbery Honor Medal in 2008.
    (It lost to 'The Graveyard Book' by Neil Gaiman, which will forever remain a tragedy in the history of Young Adult literature. That's right, Newbery committee. I said it. I'm not afraid of you. Much.)

    Disclaimer: I hate reviews that spend all their time explaining the plot and characters. I can read the dust jacket if I want it ruined for me, thanks. I prefer to review the writing, the pacing, the artistry of the author and leave the glories of the book to the reader. So for all the reviews on this blog, you can expect that I'll give you the basics and (hopefully) convince you to read it on its greater merits.


   'The Wednesday Wars' is arguably the greatest American coming-of-age story produced in this century. The setting is 1967 Long Island, where a seventh grade boy's perspective paints the trials of middle school, and the travails of the world (the Vietnam War, protests, assassinations) around him. Most important is the complex relationship with the English teacher who introduces him to Shakespeare.

   Also, there are two enormous pet rats named Sycorax and Caliban. What more can you want?

   Gary D. Schmidt is one of my favorite living young adult authors. What sets Mr. Schmidt a world above his contemporaries is his incredible ability to capture the voice of a protagonist so completely. His use of language never stumbles into angst, while all the time pulling the reader so deeply into the heart of the character that every emotion is felt, not dictated.

    Fine. I'll admit it. I've cried both times I've read this book.
    And that's incredible, people, because I don't cry over books. I don't cry over movies. I can enjoy them, and engage both 'happy' and 'sad' without ever shedding a tear. But I have yet to escape a Schmidt work without bawling unashamedly, and - this is important - it isn't because the books are sad.
   'The Wednesday Wars' isn't sad, and isn't happy.
    It is true.

   And the glory of this man's writing is in his use of the clear and unexpected. Where certain authors insist on visually assaulting you with their every imagined color (*cough* *cough* Suzanne Collins), or clobbering the reader with a blistering pace (because YA readers are easily bored?), Mr. Schmidt's work is craftsmanship. His mastery of fresh language reminds me of John Donne's Holy Sonnets; English Literature buffs will tell you that the oft quoted No. 14 is exceptional because it uses secular language to describe the divine and sacred. The unexpected, the mixing of the incredibly dissonant, is what makes both authors unequaled.

    There is a moment in 'The Wednesday Wars', when a casualty of the Vietnam War hits close to home. Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, is in the schoolroom doing chores while his teacher grades papers. The door opens and:

   Mrs. Baker stood. "Oh, Edna, did the find him?"

   Mrs. Bigio nodded.
   "And is he..."
   Mrs. Bigio opened her mouth, but the only sounds that came out were the sounds of sadness. I can't tell you what they sounded like. But you know them when you hear them.
    Mrs. Baker sprinted out from behind her desk and gathered Mrs. Bigio in her arms. She helped Mrs. Bigio to her own chair, where she slumped down like someone who had nothing left in her.
   "Mr. Hoodhood, you may go home now," Mrs. Baker said.
   I did.
   But I will never forget those sounds.

   Now look back over that excerpt, and search.

   What word do you NOT see?
   There is grief, unbearable agony, and the gut-wrenching bereavement that follows you even after you've turned the page. Did you feel it? Did you get goosebumps?

    But the word 'CRY' is not there. The words 'SOB' and 'WEEP' are not there.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Gary D. Schmidt is unequaled. It's why you must read this book, because there is another moment, a glorious moment, when he uses the same idea to convey the opposite emotion:

   Think of the sound you make when  you let go after holding your breath for a very, very long time. Think of the gladdest sounds you know: the sound of dawn on the first day of spring break, the sound of a bottle of Coke opening, the sound of a crowd cheering in your ears because you're coming down to the last part of a race - and you're ahead. Think of the sound or water over stones in a cold stream and the sound of wind through green trees on a late May afternoon in Central Park. Think of the sound of a bus coming into the station carrying someone  you love.

    Then put all those together.
    And they would be nothing compared to the sound that [character] made that day from somewhere deep inside....

    Did you hear it? Did you see it? And did he ever say that the character was happy?

    He didn't have to.

    That's why the book is genius, the author is my hero, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


    Why are you still reading this?





  1. I love The Graveyard Book, but I agree with you that Wednesday Wars is the better book. I taught it to my middle school class last year, and they all thanked me for assigning it. A unanimous favorite.
    And when we finished it, we jumped right into The Tempest. :-D The perfect set-up.

  2. I now declare we are best friends. ;) Thank you for not explaining the whole plot to us - I have to excitedly agree with you that I can read that from the book itself or the ad on Amazon. I want to know how it's written, does it grab you, is it full of suspense, is it full of great characters?? Thank you for a beautiful, grabbing review that gives me what I want to hear! I write reviews for all the books I read and I have, from the beginning, refused to recap the plot. I try to give a feel for the tone and flow of the story. YOu have done that stunningly!! I want to rush out and grab it and force my kids to all read it when they get old enough. :)
    Also, I don't cry over books. Or movies.(well, MOST movies. Now that I have had kids, I sheepishly admit I might shed a tear or two in certain heartwrenching moments) I also don't laugh out loud at them. My hubby thinks I'm strange. :) Like you - I feel it all inside, though. AND, now that you said you actually shed a tear over this book I am bound and determined to read it myself and see!

    1. Thank you, thank you, Susan P! :) I hope you love it as much as I do.