2008 Newbery Honor Book
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.