Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews

Shakespeare's Secret, Magic by the Book, and On Etruscan Time

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Elise Broach.
Shakespeare's Secret.

Henry Holt. 2005.
Ages 8-12

Okay, confession time again. I hated studying Shakespeare. The first time I read his plays in school was the 9th grade where a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds suffered through Romeo and Juliet with barely contained laughter and contempt. What a bunch of snots we were. The immaturity level in that little room, (a portable that baked in the Florida sun and looked like a refugee from the Second World War), was really astounding. It didn't help that our teacher was woefully unpopular and not because he was quirky and unusual but more because he had been phoning in his job for years and all of us knew it. The only reason we were studying Shakespeare at all was because some curriculum said we were supposed to and so there we went. The fact that we were bored out of our minds and hated every minute of it really didn't seem to matter.

Such fond memories I have of school. It's really heartwarming, isn't it?

I did not know there was any possibility that William Shakespeare wasn't the real author of the plays published under his name until I read a young adult mystery Blue Avenger Cracks the Code by Norma Howe a few years ago. I was pretty much shocked to see that there could have been someone else, that in fact there were lots of other people that might have been the true author. When I picked up Jasper Fforde's first Thursday Next novel I found out even more. It never occurred to me to be annoyed that I was learning more from fiction about Shakespeare than I ever did in school, (which included a full year of British Literature in the 11th grade and later a B.A. in History). At this point I've learned to take my history lessons where I can find them, thank you very much. But still, it seems like with all this very real drama surrounding Shakespeare, the actual teaching of his work could be a bit more interesting than it usually is.

A girl can dream, right?

But back to books. Elise Broach is a historian with degrees from Yale University. Don't let the academic background intimidate you though, she has written a first rate young adult mystery in Shakespeare's Secret. While the book's modern treasure hunt is engaging, along with all the other trials and tribulations facing our heroes, it is the historical mystery that really provides the excellent hook. Broach takes her readers through the death of Ann Boleyn, her daughter's (the future Queen Elizabeth) youthful indiscretions and the mystery of Elizabeth's relationship with Edward de Vere and wraps the whole thing up in such great wit and dialog that these characters end up light years removed from the dusty figures I studied. She makes them interesting and real and brings the intrigues of Henry the VIII and Elizabeth's courts into a conversation about elementary school traumas. Ultimately, what Broach does is make history come alive, make it matter. It feels so clichˇd to be writing this, but it's the truth. She made me think twice about Shakespeare, about all the historical figures she wrote about. And she did it in a way that any reader who loves a good mystery will enjoy. This might not seem like such a great accomplishment, but it is. Just ask any teenager trudging off to Brit Lit and they will agree; trust me, they will agree.

So I'm thinking I need to make a new subcategory in my library: "Books that Investigate the Shakespearean Mystery." I'm sure there are some excellent scholarly works on the subject and eventually I might make my way over to reading a few of them. Right now I have Hero and Danny from Elise Broach, Norma Howe's Blue Avenger and Fforde's wonderful Thursday Next to illuminate all the possibilities and arguments surrounding this literary puzzle. With such engaging escorts, I'm not sure that I want to see what academia has to say just yet. I just finished reading a book for middle grade readers and it has made me more excited about William Shakespeare than I have been for a long long time. Why take the chance at spoiling that? I'd rather savor the good feeling I have for a little while longer and consider just what historical mystery Elise Broach will be serving up next.


Nina Bernstein.
Magic by the Book.

Farrar Straus & Giroux. 2005.
Ages 8-12.

There is that certain genre of books, the ones we all read when we were young, about a child or children who come across some object that sends them on the trail of a mystery during which they encounter all kinds of adventures and prove themselves to be both smart and capable. These are the sort of books that I inhaled when I was a kid, that I could not find enough of. I was desperate for some sort of mystery to drop itself in my lap, for something, anything, to make my long dull summers more exciting. I spent my days at the library and the beach, cooling off in the air conditioning or the ocean. (Did I mention that I grew up in Florida with no air conditioning?!) Books were everything to me; I was the perfect audience for everything they had to say. When I think now about that very skinny girl with the long red hair (and freckles), I wish I could tell her to hold on tight, that adventure was on its way. But she probably wouldn't believe me; they never do at that age. Those kids want proof, not promises. And more than anything, they want their own adventure.

So instead of good intentions, if I could do it I would send back in time a copy of Nina Bernstein's delightful title, Magic by the Book. It is the perfect bit of writing for the bored and restless youngsters who long, absolutely loooooooong for something to happen in their dull little lives. It is not for the hip set, not for the Britany loving, Ashley spouting, lip synching fad followers who seem more like cattle than children as the years go by. This is the book for true adventurers, for the curious and discontented, for the ones who want to see what is out there, who long for the opportunity to see what is out there. And if they are readers, if they lurk in library hallways and keep their nightstands buried under the latest stack of "must-be-reads," then they will love this book. It is a love letter to every child who believes that stories matter, that they are important. It is, quite simply, a love letter to reading.

So what specifically has Bernstein done with Magic by the Book? She has given her three heroes (two girls and a boy) a magic token, just like Edward Eager did so long ago. And she has given them opportunity to use it, but only if they are smart and careful. She challenges them with all kinds of troubles and rewards them mightily when they come through. They have fun and believable parents, a very typical sibling relationship, and plenty of reasons to want an adventure but also to want to come home. What Bernstein has done is craft a delight, she has written a book which according to powerhouse Philip Pullman is "charming and funny and full of life." It also made me want to read War and Peace, which, quite frankly, is a bit of a miracle. Magic by the Book is perfect summer reading, it is tailor-made for summer in fact. I only wish it was a time machine for that girl sitting in the children's section of the Eau Gallie Public Library. She would have loved this book; it is just the sort of thing she was looking for.


Tracy Barrett.
On Etruscan Time.

Henry Holt. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up.

Man is it ever hard to find interesting books for boys! Everyone keeps lamenting that boys don't read as much as girls but I think the problem is authors don't write as many books for boys. There are a ton of "young girl finding herself and finding love" stories out there today, but as for boys finding themselves, they aren't so easy to come by.

What's up with that?

I think a lot of titles could and should have crossover appeal (both Magic by the Book and Shakespeare's Secret fall into this category), but still, they usually rely more heavily on a female narrator. That's okay, but it can be off-putting for some male readers. Boys do think, they do wonder, and they do go on great and exciting adventures. The problem is they just can't seem to read so much about the things they are interested in. (This is the part where I tell everyone to run out and buy a copy of Zara's Tales by Peter Beard for any boy who is struggling to read. It is the ultimate adventure collection and all true!)

I spend a lot of time looking for good books that will appeal to boys, and it's tough. I was very pleased then to come across On Etruscan Time by Tracy Barrett. This time travel story takes place in Italy and encompasses not only the excitement of going back in time but also covers a great deal of personal drama as well. Barrett keeps the plot moving briskly along and never removes the shadow of uncertainty and danger from her story. She also throws in the very real frustration that most kids have who tell adults what is going in their lives only to ignored or even worse, disbelieved.

Eleven year old Hector and his mother travel to Italy for summer vacation where she is helping some friends on an archaeological dig. Hector doesn't want to be there but his writer father is busy and his sister is staying with friends and there is no place else for him to go. In spite of his own anger at the situation he finds himself intrigued by the dig, and the people who are conducting it. He learns about the Etruscan people (who predate the Romans... I had no clue!) and also about archaeology in general. And then he finds something that seems like nothing but really is more significant then he can imagine. And then he meets Arath, an Etruscan boy who can travel through time. And then Hector finds out that he has to be a hero or Arath is not going to live.

This is the part where major adventure starts kicking in.

Well I'm not going to tell you what happens because the book is so good that you should be reading it for yourself. I will say that the entire issue of time travel is handled and explained quite well and Barrett follows-up her story with a nice little Afterword about the Etruscan people. (I love it when authors take the time to do that.) Hector learns a lot about himself and what it means to make yourself heard and he strikes a decent blow for kids everywhere who are afraid to speak their minds. It's all very well done and interesting as well. I learned something and had a good time doing it; this could get to be a habit if I'm not careful. (Maybe that's the book I should write: Things I Didn't Learn in High School, But Was Taught by Children's Literature.)

Sometimes I can't believe how much I do not know.

Tracy Barrett has crafted a nice little adventure story with a male protagonist in an exotic location that involves time travel, danger and a lot of quick thinking. She has written, in essence, the perfect book for middle-grade boys. As I'm a thirty-something girl and loved it, I think that it won't hurt for female fans as well. Now I just have to find some more books like it.

I'll have to get back to you on that...


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