Out Brief Candle: A Shakespeare Death Day Reading List

Article by liz

Someday I hope to be famous enough that people celebrate my death day—although I suppose part of the reason we celebrate Shakespeare's death day is because we don't really have a concrete birthday, and I am lucky to live in an era of more-complete social records. Shakespeare did have a bit of a preoccupation with death, as well, if the body counts of his plays tell us anything, so a death day celebration feels particularly appropriate for this memento mori playwright. Join us this weekend to celebrate Shakespeare's 400th death day with the Houston Shakespeare Festival--and if you want a little themed reading, here's some awesome new young adult fiction inspired by Shakespeare! To stay particularly on topic, these stories all begin with some loss or death--but in the way even Shakespeare himself sometimes didn't, these stories tell us how to survive, fight back, and live life again.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101994580
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Dutton Books for Young Readers - March 15th, 2016

Of all Shakespeare's plays to get a YA adaptation, I gotta admit I wasn't expecting The Winter's Tale to be one. It's a great play, and popular—the title of this novel is one of the stage directions in Act III (probably the most famous one Shakespeare ever wrote)—but it's a little odd: a sprawling, cross-country story that's ultimately about remaking a family after a king's irrational jealousy nearly destroys it. In EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR, E.K. Johnston recenters the story on Hermione, the wronged queen of The Winter's Tale, moving the setting from Renaissance Sicily and Bohemia to modern-day Canada, and casting our Hermione as the head cheerleader of a small-town team. She's an athlete, a leader, a good friend and a great cheerleader.

She also gets raped at the end of the first act of the book.

I don't want to sugarcoat it, or pretend like this isn't a book that deals with a traumatic assault. I don't want to try and be nice about it, because, well, it's not—but this book handles trauma and support and recovery better than any book I've read on it, for teens or for adults. This is Hermione's book. It's not about the assault, about her rapist, or about revenge—it's about one teenage girl, reclaiming her agency and her life after someone's selfish act of violence tries to take it away. In the author's note, Johnston says she was in a very angry place when she wrote the book (due to a particular politician, apparently, who goes unnamed), and I think Johnston's rage shows in a very powerful way in the text: through the boundless compassion Hermione experiences from her family, her teammates, and her town.

That, to me, after living through endless twenty-four-hour news cycles about slut-shaming and victim-blaming, was the real gift of this book. Compassion. Everyone in Hermione's life, from her coach to her priest to her therapist, is incredibly kind and compassionate, and that kindness allows Hermione to heal. She is a phenomenal protagonist. She pushes herself to get better, she doesn't settle for anything but the full life she deserves, but since she's surrounded by people to support and help her, she's allowed to have panic attacks and experience her trauma and be afraid, because she is undeniably a person in Johnston's hands. The dimension, the power, and the strength Johnston gives Hermione make it clear that this adaptation surpasses its source. (Sorry, but not sorry, Bill.)

The Steep and Thorny Way Cover Image
ISBN: 9781419719158
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harry N. Abrams - March 8th, 2016

Cat Winters is the queen of historical fiction and a favorite author of mine, with her previous YA outings forming a core of store favorites (IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and THE CURE FOR DREAMING). So when I saw that her newest novel was a Hamlet retelling set in Prohibition-era Oregon, where biracial Hanalee tries to find justice for her murdered African-American father without running afoul of the terrifying local KKK chapter, I was a fan before I'd even read the first page—and once I'd finished the whole book, I was happier than I'd ever been.

THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY isn't just a great Hamlet adaptation, it's a great book, period. Winters always fills her historical fiction with pictures and historical documents to set the scene, and this novel is no exception—if there had been no Shakespeare references at all, this still would have been a phenomenal story. But I'm truly grateful it's a Hamlet adaptation, because it shows how the stories Shakespeare made famous are incredibly universal: Prohibition-era Oregon? A biracial, female protagonist struggling against social evils? That's not as far from early modern England as you can get, but it's several million miles, at least. Stories don't exist in a vacuum, either, and I love that Winters used this famous, wonderful story of something rotten in Denmark to tell an amazing story about a time and a set of injustices that our culture still doesn't really want to face.

And like I said, beyond Hamlet, this book is just a great story. It crosses genres as deftly as Shakespeare did himself: it's a thriller, a mystery, a ghost story, all set so perfectly in the 1920s that you'll think it was written then. Hanalee is a fierce protagonist, too—clever, tough, well-armed, and incredibly caring. THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY is the full package: great characters, a great premise, and a great author.

Dreamers Often Lie Cover Image
ISBN: 9780803738638
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Dial Books - April 5th, 2016

The awesome thing about DREAMERS OFTEN LIE was that it made me feel so normal!

...oh, wait, that's not the point? People aren't supposed to hallucinate Shakespeare walking around with them? Oops. My bad. Let me regroup.

Jacqueline West's trippy, layered story is about Jaye, a high school actress, and what happens after she gets a concussion in a skiing accident. She's finally landed the lead in a school play—Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream—and all she can think about is getting back on that stage. So, when she forces herself to push through not just her accident, but the memories and family trauma it stirs of her father's death a year ago, the Shakespeare starts to get a little too real. As in, she starts hallucinating Shakespeare himself speaking to her, and Hamlet and Romeo and other characters and situations.

I love DREAMERS OFTEN LIE because, well, they do, and because, with Jaye as an unreliable narrator, even to herself, there's no way to be sure who's really real, what's really happening, or what's just in Jaye's mind. We don't know who's a figment or a person, what's Jaye's own mind working against her and what's really true. I loved this one. It's chilling, mysterious, and cerebral (a great book for a parent-teen book club!), and it'll pull you into the topsy-turvy world of Jaye's mind in no time at all. It's got a great love story, like a Shakespeare play should, but for all the romance and mystery, it's more about Jaye coming to terms with her loss, and with who she is now with these changes in her life and her family. It's tense and twisty, and Jaye's bardolatry gives a great original twist to this thriller.

Summerlost Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399187193
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Dutton Books for Young Readers - March 29th, 2016

All right, SUMMERLOST is actually middle-grade, and is about a Shakespeare festival, not a Shakespeare adaptation, but are you really going to argue with me about technicalities? Trust me: this book is golden. Like DREAMERS OFTEN LIE, it's about how Shakespeare can get into your head and affect the way you see the world—but instead of literally adding a layer of Shakespeare-themed perception, it's about theater, and the inspiration it can give you, and about how theater and drama can help you find belonging when you feel like you don't fit in.

Cedar Lee finds a new friend in local boy Leo, when she, her mother, and her brother move to her mom's hometown after losing her dad and youngest brother in a car accident. She works concessions at the local Summerlost Theater Festival, and sells programs in old show costumes with Leo, and watches soapy dramas with her brother. It's a perfect Polaroid of the monotony of grief through a young adult's perspective, of the way we can fixate on certain things as distractions, and Cedar gets caught up in the drama of—well—drama. There's a theater ghost, a mystery, and some wonderfully real, poignant family feels. It's utterly captivating and charming, like a summer evening full of potential. SUMMERLOST reminds me that Shakespeare really can make anything possible.

Liz Wright is the Kids Specialist and resident Shakespeare fanatic of Brazos Bookstore. She earned her B.A. in English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College, where she spent four years in the Wellesley College Shakespeare Society being all manner of lords, clowns, and untamed shrews. Her writing has appeared in BUST Magazine and Minerva Rising Literary Journal. This fall, she'll pursue her MA and MFA in Children's Literature and Writing for Children at Simmons College, where she'll be the Dean's Fellow for Children's Literature.

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