It’s the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth on 26th April 2014 and a good time to think about books to inform and inspire children about his work and times. Margaret Mallett selects her top ten titles.
For this enjoyable task I have visited bookshops, libraries and particularly The Globe Theatre book shop which has a well organised display of texts about Shakespeare and retellings of his plays for all age groups. When it comes to books, some are about Shakespeare’s times and his life while others are about the theatre in Shakespeare’s time. Here the quality of illustration is particularly important to show such things as the building of the theatre, the structure of the stage and the actors and their costumes. In choosing retellings, I have kept in mind that Shakespeare’s use of language has never been surpassed and even the very young can appreciate some of it. Most authors have Shakespeare’s words – key dialogue and extracts from speeches and songs – embedded in their retellings.
Jacqueline Morley illus John James, Bookhouse, 978 -1-905638-59-8, £7.99 pbk
This large visual guide, with its inviting mixture of text and illustration, would be particularly useful to classes visiting The Globe Theatre. Its sheer comprehensiveness with chapters about the history of the theatre and the fire that destroyed it, and its index, glossary and time span make it a splendid resource . The historical context of the plays and medieval and Tudor theatre going are well covered. And children will enjoy learning about the many people involved in the production of a play: the cast, of course, the writer and producer, the hired men who might take several parts each, the ‘tiremen’ who looked after the costumes and the apprentices who helped erect the scenery and create the props. The annotated vignettes as well as the larger pictures on carefully designed pages make the book multimodal and many of the cutaway pictures make excellent use of perspective.
Louie Stowell (adaptor)and Christine Unzer (ill.), Usborne Young Reading CD pack (2012 edition), series 2, 978-1409545446, £4.99 hbk
A lot of thought has gone into how best to tell this complicated story to young children. It is, after all, a tale of murder, revenge and madness! Use of dialogue keeps up the pace of the story. The illustrations are full of life and colour and reveal character and feelings through facial expression and gesture. I just wonder, though, if some short quotations from the play itself might have been included. But I think adaptor and illustrator have managed to convey the drama and tension of the plot and achieved a good story for the age group. Reading this story may well begin an interest in Shakespeare’s work that can be nurtured and developed as they progress through the school years. Teachers of young children may find some of the other retellings of Shakespeare stories in the series of interest, and also Rosie’s Dicken’s book William Shakespeare (2008) in series 3.
Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays
Marcia Williams, Walker Books, 978-1406323344, £6.99 pbk
I think this is one of the most inviting introductions to Shakespeare’s plays and to Tudor theatre for young children. It tells the story of seven of the plays: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. (The companion book, Bravo, Mr Shakespeare, includes seven others, including King Lear and Twelfth Night). Young readers are invited to imagine that they have been transported to Shakespeare’s times and are about to watch one of his plays at the first Globe Theatre. Each story is told through a sequence of cells like a comic book with Shakespeare’s words spoken by the characters and the plot explained below the pictures. The distinctive and detailed cartoons are superb and the audience is to be seen pictured round the edge of the pages shouting out cheeky, witty comments on the performance. An excellent resource to help inspire children’s drama, writing and drawing and there are ideas for simple costumes and props.( 7+)
King Lear: A Shakespeare Story
Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross (ill.), Orchard Books, 978-1-40830-503-4, £3.99 pbk
This is one of a series of retellings for young children. As well as relating the story, the book has useful notes on ‘Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre’ and on ‘Chaos and Old Age in King Lear’. The relationship between parents and children is a theme in many a fairytale and even the youngest children will be able to relate to this aspect of the play. Andrew Matthews uses dialogue to show character and to drive the story on. He does not avoid the tragic aspects of this play. This is how he tells of the sad ending to the play: ‘Lear’s weary heart stopped beating, and he collapsed on Cordelia’s body’. Tony Ross’s illustrations which include vignettes of the characters and settings will add greatly to children’s appreciation and understanding. ( 7+)
Terry Deary’s Best Ever Shakespeare Tales
Terry Deary and Michael Tickner (ill.) Scholastic (2014 edition), ISBN 978-1-407138-92-3, £5.99 pbk
These lively stories, based on ten of the most frequently performed Shakespeare plays, are likely to enthuse even more reluctant young readers. Each chapter relates the plot of a play and then sets out ‘fantastic facts’ on such topics as Shakespeare’s theatre, Shakespeare’s audiences and ‘foul word-play’ – an interesting exploration of Shakespeare’s use of language. Each play is put in an historical context and, with a light touch, Deary packs in a lot of information. But the emphasis is on entertainment and the pages are full of fun and variety, enlivened by Tickner’s black and white drawings. The subversive flavour of the book – ‘learn these words and impress your teachers’ and ‘just pretend to understand them’- will make many a young reader chuckle. There are some fascinating anecdotes, for example, did you know that Ellen Terry played the part of Puck at the age of eight? She had to come up through a trap door to give her final speech. At one performance the man working the trapdoor shut it too soon and broke her toe! As teachers know, this is the kind of input that fascinates. The different kinds of writing – in role (Puck and Miranda), in cartoon form ( a hilarious version of the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice mimicking a game show)and a newspaper report – encourage a creative response from children. I think this book gets close to the spirit of Shakespeare, helped by the judicious placing of quotations. ( 9+)
Leon Garfield and Michael Foreman (ill.). Puffin (1985 ed.), 978-0140389388, £16 hbk
These twelve rich retellings include the characters’ dialogue in Shakespeare’s fine words. But Garfield’s narratives are powerful too. Let me give one example to show the drama and poetry which typifies Garfield’s prose by turning to his description of the storm in Twelfth Night. ‘Huge winds came boiling out of black clouds and a vessel, frail as paper, lifted, plunged…’ The imagery throughout the stories is exceptionally powerful and the book is a literary achievement in its own right. The appeal is enhanced by Michael Foreman’s distinctive illustrations; I particularly like the arresting cover picture and the amusing one inside of the inebriated Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. (9+ )
Tales from Shakespeare
Charles and Mary Lamb, Arthur Rackham (ill.), Wordsworth Children’s Classics, Wordsworth Editions Limited (1994), 978-1853261404, £4.99 pbk.
These twenty tales are rich with humour and telling imagery; and the authors reflect much of Shakespeare’s insight about the human condition. The Lambs delight in the magic and mystery of the plays and Shakespeare’s characters: witches, kings, queens and fairies. There is no doubt that the language used is powerful. In the King Lear story Lear’s realisation that there is a mismatch between his elder daughters’ ‘protestations and performances’ is explained thus: ‘Lear at first could not believe his ears or eyes, nor that his daughters had spoken so unkindly’. The authors reworking of dialogue is telling too and adds to characterisation and would bring life to reading aloud from their book. But the direct quotations from Shakespeare are abundant and well placed: we have Ariel’s song from The Tempest with the lovely image of ‘in a cowslip bell I lie’. There are a number of different editions . I like this one because of Rackham’s arresting pen and ink drawings. The Puffin version has an interesting preface by Judi Dench, but rather an unsettling picture of a skull on the front cover. Now here’s the rub, so to speak. At what age are children most likely to enjoy these tellings? Often we read that they are a good introduction ‘for young children’ but I’m inclined to leave them until the upper primary stage and beyond. By then children will be better able to cope with the rather long sentences and nineteenth century vocabulary. Children going to see a performance of one of the plays would find reading the appropriate tale from the Lamb’s collection would give them a grip on the plot. (10+)
What’s So Special About Shakespeare?
Michael Rosen and Sarah Nayler (ill), Walker Books (2007), 978-1-40630036-9, £4.99 pbk.
For me this book stands out because it encourages children to wonder and question why Shakespeare is still acted, read and quoted and why his work still shapes our language and literature today. It is quite something for a playwright to be so prominent after more than four hundred years. One reason is that Shakespeare chose themes that audiences and readers are likely to relate to. Take Romeo and Juliet suggests Rosen – Shakespeare knew how universal are arguments between parents and children. Juliet’s defiance creates dramatic tension and words and actions combine in an involving set of events. What Rosen calls Shakespeare’s ‘pictorial language’ – his use of words that create powerful images- also makes his work riveting. There is such a lot to get children thinking and discussing here. There is something about Shakespeare’s life, times and schooling and about the first Globe Theatre. All the information is clearly organised and brought to life by Rosen’s lively style and deep knowledge of the four plays he concentrates on. Sarah Nayler’s quirky black and white drawings with cartoon-like asides are a perfect complement. A splendid teaching resource for late primary and early secondary school pupils. (10+)
Manga Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Kate Brown (ill.), William Shakespeare, Richard Appignanesi (text adapter) and Nick de Somogyi (text consultant), SelfMadeHero (2008), 978-0955285646, £7.99 pbk
Although this book is recommended for ‘reluctant teenager readers’ of Shakespeare’s plays I think most people, of any age, would enjoy the dramatic and sometimes enchanting illustrations. There is some delightful art work: the picture of Puck and the fairies is exquisite. Shakespeare’s words are used, sometimes in a slightly modified form, and there are end sections giving a plot summary and a short life of Shakespeare. The book, and the others in the series, has great potential for inspiring drama and art work and the books would complement a traditional set in the school library. (I am taking this opportunity of squeezing in another recommendation – Graphic Shakespeare (Bookhouse)- as its dramatic, stylised illustrations, captions in modern English and headings raising issues is also likely to appeal to older readers).( 11+)
Stories From Shakespeare
Geraldine McCaughrean, Orion Children’s Books (2003 ed.), 978-185881 388 3, £4.99 pbk.
These ten retellings are those of the plays that older children are most likely to encounter in school. They are full of Shakespeare’s words but McCaughrean’s own language is powerful as she seeks, like the bard himself, to entertain . As she comments in her introduction, Shakespeare creates worlds ‘peopled by the kind of characters you meet in dreams, nightmares or real life’. The first sentence in her Romeo and Juliet story is short but takes us immediately into a situation- of the nightmarish variety. ‘Once, in a sweltering Italian city named Verona, one man wronged another’. Her description of the ‘desperate fervour’ of Romeo’s adolescent crushes will ring true to young readers as will the tendency for his passions to ‘crumble to nothing’. Until, of course he meets Juliet. The lyrical and sometimes dramatic language makes the stories excellent for reading out loud. (13+)
Margaret Mallett has taught in primary schools and in the Education Department of Goldsmiths College. She writes books on all aspects of Primary English and is Emeritus Fellow of the English Association.