If you want a good book to help introduce kids to Shakespeare, what books should you look for? My junior year in college I took a Children’s Lit course and then in my free time the next summer read over fifty books about Shakespeare for Children or teens. Some were wretched. Some were out of print, but some were phenomenal. Here are ten of the best with a quick summary.
Looking for the story of a specific play? Bruce Coville retold quite a few all with different illustrators including less popular titles (The Winter’s Tale) but Hamlet and Twelfth Night are some of my favorites. Michael Rosen has a breath-taking Romeo and Juliet.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Bruce Coville, illustrated by Leonid Gore
This book is a credit to Shakespeare, deeply beautiful in the sad telling of the tale and in Leonid Gore’s dark, nebulous illustrations, in acrylics and pastel. In all the darkness and expressive melancholy, it takes hold of the humor and lightness in the play. Hamlet’s jokes against Polonius are explained, Hamlet’s dialogue with his schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there, shortened, but in all their witty glory. Shakespeare’s words settle into the prose of this story and Coville’s prose is rich and beautiful through the gems it holds. At the end of the play, as Hamlet is dying, he begs Horatio to tell his story, and as this book closes the last page shows Horatio bending over his dear friend, bidding him, “goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” The text then points out that Horatio does indeed tell Hamlet’s story, and even this book is a telling in that tradition.
William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Bruce Coville, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
This marvelous book is funny and sincere and a fantastic retelling of Shakespeare’s play. The verbal retelling is stellar and the visual gives the impression of the stylistic convergence of woodcut, and comic strip with heavy outlines to the characters and a visual emphasis on patterns. The nobility are have their elegance somewhat impeded by the madness of love and the subplot with Toby, sir Andrew and the gulling of Malvolio is in all its playful and ridiculous glory. In all the craziness of the book, the actual emotional tension of Viola, disguised as a man and pining for the Duke (who sees her as nothing but his boy) is not overlooked, and it gives the book a depth through Viola’s willingness to serve the Duke even if serving him will mean getting someone else to marry him. It is a beautiful story, and wonderfully presented in this charming and faithful retelling.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Jane Ray
From the moment it is opened it speaks to the reader with its exquisite illustrations, and the text is equally beautifully and carefully set, preserving a great deal of Shakespeare’s own language woven into the narrative of the story. Any difficult words in the original text are helpfully noted in the margins, but the margins like every inch of this spectacular book, are so beautifully filled with pattern and color that they are themselves a piece of the art. The illustrations are painted in layers of fantasy, with figures not overly detailed, but wonderfully expressive in their gesture and framing. The style is set in Verona in the renaissance, with arches, birds, greenery and stars forming motives in and around the central pictures, often echoing the themes from the text. I cannot speak well enough of it.
What about collections of Shakespeare Stories? There are a bunch more that fall into this category, but I’m going to advise against Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. These ones below are some of my favorites. Also Leon Garfield’s collections, if you want something old but excellent.
Tales from Shakespeare and More Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams
These delightful books tells the stories of seven different plays in comic strip style, and are great fun to read. In the main section of the pages you see the actors uttering bits of the bard’s text with summary notes beneath them, but framing the story are lots of audience members, animals, musicians, and who knows what else, all commenting on the play, or adding to it in their own way. In many of the plays the mood is indicated by color scheme, for instance, Richard III is all black, white and grey, and King Lear is all grays and browns, whereas Much Ado suggests its comic nature with bright, playful colors. The book shows wit in its telling and a great deal of insight into the plays, often implemented by the audience members around the margins of the page. In the Merchant of Venice, for instance they ask pointed questions, make the connections between the action and the music (indicated by characters playing lutes) and bring out the characteristics of problem comedy.
Tales from Shakespeare by Tina Packer
This retelling of ten of Shakespeare’s plays is a wonder of design. Not only including the magnificent and widely varied art of eleven different acclaimed illustrators, the lay out and design holding the book together is a pleasure to hold, to flip through and to look at. Each of the illustrators give a magnificent full page illustration on the opening spread of each new play and opposite the illustration is the strikingly set title, and a brief summary of the play. The plays are succinctly and knowledgeably told, with humor and feeling, and in Tina Packer’s writing the plays are clear and beautiful to any who read these stories. Even the introduction, (a section easy to skip in most books) is such a wonderful biography and summary of the wonder and greatness of Shakespeare’s works that the book would be worth owning if it had nothing else between its covers.
How about Biographies? These are both excellent, and have a lot to teach not just about Shakespeare but about Renaissance England, playhouses, and even a good bit of the plays. Rosen’s is hands-down the best, but Aliki is good for younger readers.
Shakespeare: His Work and His World by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
While answering the questions, “who is Shakespeare and why does he matter?” this book also introduces its readers to the time period in which Shakespeare worked. It is full of stories like the midnight demolition of the theater to move it to a new location, and also tells the stories of some of the plays, and relates how the stories have changed the way people think throughout history. It is such a beautiful book, that some might be hesitant to give it to its designated age range. Books for 10-14 year olds can’t have gloriously beautiful illustrations, can they? Yes. Yes they can.
William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki
This is the sort of book I loved when I was growing up. There’s so much on every page that you can read through it fast (to get through it quickly) or you can read every little caption for all the little drawings if you want to take more of it in. It tells about Shakespeare’s life and world, but also deals very specifically with the reconstructed Globe in London, how it was built and why Sam Wanamaker would want to make that happen. Fantastic classroom resource.
Historical fiction? This first book is a picture book for the little ones, but the other two are excellent middle school/high school reads.
Will’s Quill, or How a Goose Saved Shakespeare By Don Freeman
Charming and humorously told by the author/illustrator famous for the Corduroy books, this is the tale of a friendship between a goose and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare protects the country goose from all the crowds and chaos of London, and Willoughby Waddle gives Shakespeare a good strong feather to make a real, solid quill. The pictures are mostly watercolor, with special attention to the lighting, and facial and physical expression of the characters.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Holling Hoodhood is the only student in his seventh grade class who is not Jewish or Catholic and therefore does not leave for religious school on Wednesday afternoons, and as the only student left in the class, he keeps his teacher, Mrs. Turner, from leaving to go home early. She hates his guts, and makes him read Shakespeare as punishment for preventing her mid-week hiatus. But as the book progresses, Holling finds that things are not always what he thinks they are, not Mrs. Turner, not the war in Vietnam, not the fears and frustrations of middle school life, not the members and stability of his family, not even his hero-worshiped Yankees, or atomic bomb drills. Told through Holling’s wry and humorous voice, he finds himself and the world around him through all the “bloody sports” around him, through “the quality of mercy” (which is not strained), through all the “stones and blocks and senseless things” to find hope in the prospect of bringing peace and wisdom to the world. “L’chayim!”
King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Compellingly written half in the 1990s and half in the 1590s, Nat Fields goes back in time from acting with an excellent troupe of boys given the opportunity to go to England and act in the newly re-built Globe theatre, to Shakespeare’s original Globe 400 years earlier. Nat is now a part of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, and involved in all the beauty and excitement of the life of Elizabethan theatre, playing Puck to Shakespeare’s Oberon. Will Shakespeare is portrayed as a father figure to the orphaned boy, and is portrayed beautifully and winsomely, the reader finds himself loving Will as much as Nat does in all his words and meaning, and understanding of what it is to love and lose. There is a great deal of Shakespeare’s text woven into the book, done without drawing attention to itself, but sowing in the reader a love for the words of the bard, the “ever fixed mark” he has set on all of the world through his plays and poetry.