Early in my marriage, my mother-in-law suggested I might someday like to have her wax bust of Shakespeare. I don’t recall my response; I hope it was gracious, though I’m not optimistic on that point. What I thought was, What on earth would I do with it?
A couple of decades later, the bust is one of our most prized heirlooms, and not least because it has stood in for the Bard at numerous posthumous birthday parties—at home, in the bookstall I used to operate, and in my daughter’s grade school classrooms.
Indeed, among the weekly classroom visits to which I came bearing stacks of themed books, the end-of-April birthday party for the Bard was a favorite event. (No one knows the exact date, but Shakeseare is presumed to have been born on April 23. His christening is recorded on April 26, and most babies were baptized three days after their birth.)
No doubt the cupcakes contributed to playwright’s popularity. But it always amazed me that the 450-year-old bard (b. 1564) could cast his spell even in a neighborhood school where students faced everything from homelessness to incarcerated parents, and legal residency was a taboo subject.
But after all, wasn’t that part of Shakespeare’s genius—his ability to enchant all segments of society, from the groundlings to the Queen? Not to mention the power of story to console and entertain when the harsher realities of life loom large.
A Shakespeare party can involve activities as elaborate as staging scenes or as simple as perusing the books below. Other possibilities include a whimsical, multiple-choice Shakespeare quiz (with prizes, of course, for high scorers), short-story prompts (in elaborate Shakespearean style), and improv scenes initiated by a line from the plays or sonnets.
Resources to help young people appreciate Shakespeare abound. Among those that have crossed my path, these are a few of my favorites:
DK Eyewitness Shakespeare
by Peter Chrisp and Steve Teague (DK Eyewitness, Penguin)
This is altogether my favorite Shakespeare resource for ease of access, visual appeal, and wealth of information. Photographs convey costumed actors acting out scenes (how do you stage a beheading?), audience members in period dress, and all manner of 17th-century artifacts—cosmetics, a printing press, instruments, tools, and pomanders to keep the plague at bay.
Double-page spreads are dedicated to topics such as Queen Elizabeth, London, playwrights, actors, religious conflict, Shakespeare’s Globe theater, and eras in his life. Each topic features a brief summary text accompanied by a montage of illustrations and photographs and an abundance of captions. Immersive readers can absorb it all; those with less time or shorter attention spans can glean selectively.
Kid highlights: An illustration of London that includes the heads of traitors (portrayed from a distance) mounted on London Bridge, to discourage malefactors)
Shakespeare: His Work and His Words
by Michael Rosen and Robert Ingpen (Candlewick)
This beautifully illustrated edition also takes a topical approach to such subjects as Shakespeare’s life and legacy, Stratford schools, 17th-century politics and religion, the history of theater, and the plays themselves. The book is likely to appeal to older readers, as the lengthy entries require more dedicated reading. But Rosen’s prose is engaging and his inclusion of glossed quotes from the plays enlightening.
Kid highlights: Ingpen’s luminous impressionist-realist illustrations
William Shakespeare and the Globe
by Aliki (Harper Collins)
While focused on Shakespeare’s theater, this book also traces Shakespeare’s career in the context of 17th-century London, with its rivalries, plagues, and plays. It recounts the building of the Globe, its stealthy night-time move across the Thames when the company lost its lease on the land, its 1613 demise when stage cannons lit a disastrous fire, its rebuilding within two years, and its eventual dismantling in 1644. The narrative then skips ahead 300 years to the vision of Sam Wanamaker, who inspired the reconstruction of the Globe, completed in 1997. The narrative text blocks are short. Pages are less busy, but detailed inset illustrations accompanied by quotes and informative captions are interesting and informative.
Kid highlights: The historically accurate drawing of a patron escaping the burning Globe, the flaming seat of his “breeches” being doused by a flagon of ale
by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley (Charlesbridge)
The contributions of theaters and playwrights to 17th-century London is the principal focus here. Detailed illustrations completely fill the two-page spreads. An explanatory text box on the left side of each incorporates common phrases originally coined by Shakespeare—“love letter,” “wild-goose chase,” “outbreak.” A text box on the opposite page defines the phrases and locates them in Shakespeare’s plays.
Kid highlight: Sideview cutaway of a theater, showing its various dressing rooms, prop rooms, backstage areas, “heaven” (above the stage), and “hell” (below)
William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World’s Greatest Writer
by Mick Manning and Brita Granström (Frances Lincoln)
This book takes a chronological approach to the bard and his works. Two-page spreads include complex illustrations, informational insets, speech bubbles, and lines from the plays. Summaries of select plays appear in the year they debuted.
Kid highlights: Speculations on young Will’s possible antics and adventures during childhood and his “lost years,” for which little documentation exists
Mr. William Shakespeare’s Plays and Bravo, Mr. Shakespeare
by Marcia Williams (Walker Books)
Retellings of Shakespeare’s plays abound, but these comic-style presentations are my favorite. Simple summaries of the play’s action accompany each frame; direct quotes from the plays appear in speech bubbles. Best of all, marginalia conveys the goings-on of the audience. The comedies and histories are rendered in full color; the tragedies, appropriately, in gray scale. Thanks to Williams, my first grader was able to recite, impromptu, lines from “Much Ado About Nothing” in a Shakespeare showcase.
Kid highlights: The groundlings’ commentary, such as, “I don’t think this is quite suitable for children”
Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare and Complete Shakespeare
A friend gave us the Illustrated Stories (adapted by Rosie Dickins) when my daughter was in fifth grade. Having quickly made her way through the large type and abridged dialogues, she was subsequently more conversant on certain of the six plays than I was. The Complete Shakespeare, for older readers,includes more comprehensive versions of all the plays. Both volumes are beautifully illustrated by, respectively, Christa Unzner and Maria Surducan.
Kid highlight: Whimsical illustrations that do special justice to Shakespeare’s comedies
Romeow and Drooliet
by Nina Laden (Chronicle)
While I had no trouble entertaining young readers with illustrations and excerpts from the aforementioned volumes, finding books we could read straight through was more challenging. This slightly unorthodox recasting of the star-crossed lovers as dog and cat was an instant hit. What could be better than Drooliet on a balcony, declaring, “I do not care that you are a cat or a Felini. If you were a creature of any other name, it would still make my tail wag.” And no need to shy away on account of the tragedy [spoiler alert]—the lovers don’t die, and their families reconcile.
Will’s Quill, or How a Goose Saved Shakespeare
by Don Freeman (Viking)
This, too, was a crowd pleaser. A goose named Willoughby abandons the countryside for London. There he undergoes a series of educational misadventures, from one of which young Will extricates him. At length Willoughby returns the favor by—you guessed it—supplying an essential writing implement in the hour of need. The young playwright finishes his first play, and the two become fast friends. Shakespeare-style dialogue gives young readers a taste of Will’s language.
by John O’Farrell and Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick
A final exceedingly entertaining and moderately educational option for teens is “Something Rotten,” a 2015 musical comedy by John O’Farrell and Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. Parents will want to preview the soundtrack, as it does include a few mature (principally bawdy) moments. But select songs provide hilarious satire and historical background, i.e. “Welcome to the Renaissance,” “Hard to be the Bard,” and “Will Power.” The latter accounts for my teen’s ability to recite the first four lines of Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day …).