The Wednesday Wars (Gary D. Schmidt)
Set in the mid-60's, this book is about Holling Hoodhood's (yep, that's his name) weekly experiences with a teacher who he is convinced hates his guts. At this point in educational history, students were dismissed midday on Wednesdays to go to their respective churches or temples and learn about their religion. The Catholic students went to parochial school to learn about Catholicism, and the Jewish students went to Hebrew school to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvahs. That left Holling, a Presbyterian, who had nowehere to go, and therefore was stuck with Mrs. Baker. Their "Wednesday wars" are actually some creative and meaningful times spent together that grow Holling in ways that could never have been anticipated.
What was most interesting to me was how Schmidt makes the interactions with Mrs. Baker (the teacher who Holling thinks hates him) the star of this novel, and how there are so many intriguing side-stories that are much more important and significant than her literature lessons. Here are a few of them:
1. Holling's father is an architect, and a successful one. He's also a jerk. This affects Holling, his mother and sister, and his friends in some very important ways.
2. The story is set during the Vietnam war. Mrs. Baker's husband is a soldier, and becomes trapped behind enemy lines.
3. The culture of the Vitenam era is also a pressing, and most interesting, issue in this tale. One of Holling's classmates is a Vietnamese orphan who has had nothing whatsoever to do with the war, yet she takes the brunt of the town's frustrations in some very demeaning and hateful ways.
4. Initially considered the bane of his existence, Mrs. Baker is actually Holling's strongest ally.
4. Mrs. Baker is an awesome teacher, whose strongest characteristics are her perception, her discretion, and her compassion. We could all take a few notes from Mrs. Baker.
My primary concern during the first few chapters was that students would not be engaged in this book. Set in a different time period in a different part of the country that had very different anxieties than our students currently experience, I worried that it would be much too foreign for them to relate. Then again, I will be the first to acknowledge that one of the greatest gifts literature can offer us is the ability to step outside ourselves and our problems and our egos and into the shoes of another person we would never perhaps even meet, much less be.
It's a good book, and I'll recommend it to my 5th graders... maybe some 4th graders as well. But, I know now HOW to recommend it and prepare my students for its consumption. The Wednesday Wars: Handle With Care!
*The Wednesday Wars is a Newbery Honor Book.