We recently listened to two really terrific middle grade novels that the big kids highly recommend. The stories, which tie together in terms of themes and characters but could stand alone, follow boys in growing up in the 1960s. The approach to the moon landings, Vietnam War, and other historical events is particularly well done. At least two of the kids cried when one character’s brother came home from Vietnam in a wheelchair and was screamed at by a crowd of protestors. But the really awesome themes were the impact of art on boys at a critical age. I loved the way these books stayed totally true to boy-ness and the awkward 6th-8th grade years while setting a high view of what boys can accomplish, learn, and appreciate. Other highlights included really invested teachers, lots of baseball stats, and boys learning to appreciate and get along with difficult siblings.
In The Wednesday Wars, our main character, Holling, comes out of his shell and into his own thanks to a teacher who introduces him to Shakespeare. Holling’s family seems perfect on the outside, but he’s getting old enough to understand that there are serious cracks in the foundation. Shakespeare gives him words for what he’s going through, and opens up his ability to understand other people and stand up for himself and others. All three kids requested different Shakespeare plays for independent reading after this one, even if one kid only wanted to perfect the curses from The Tempest.
If anything, the sequel to The Wednesday Wars, Okay For Now, is even better. We were taken aback at first to find out that the main character of the second book is one of the bullies from the first book. Wait, we said, we don’t like Doug! We don’t want to hear a whole book about Doug! But immediately the reader’s view of Doug is challenged when we see how he loves and respects his mother, and we change our minds completely as we begin to understand the unusual reasons for Doug’s behavior and responses. Again, great teachers (and an insightful librarian) see the spark in Doug and help him overcome his (huge) barriers. In Okay For Now, Doug’s exposure to John James Audubon triggers his own artistic skills, and gives him a project to work toward as he chooses positive actions and shows good judgement even in the face of terrible circumstances. Doug also begins to understand his older brothers better, and his family pulls together in ways that would have seemed impossible in chapter one.
My one regret for these two books are the father characters. Holling’s dad is neglectful and a jerk, but Doug’s dad is outright committing physical abuse. It wasn’t detailed or adult in any way, but I still don’t know how I feel about my kids hearing that some adults punch and beat their kids. That’s a tough one. We wound up talking about it, but I feel like some of my kids were pretty upset at the idea a parent who was not parenting in any sense of the word. I guess with a target late elementary/middle school audience, you can have those discussions. But if you prefer not to get into it, you might want to pre-read the book and see if you’d rather skip parts or at least start a conversation about some issues.
I do think that both books were exceptionally well-written, nuanced, and full of important themes while still appealing to the target audience. It’s not easy to find books about boys who choose for good character and education in the face of obstacles and bullies. At least not if you want stories that also seem realistic and not twaddly or saccharine. The author, who is a professor at Calvin College, has written several other books we plan to check out.
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