Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dionne, Erin. The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet. This book is appropriate for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I don’t know how often in past columns I have addressed the issue of “girl” books and “boy” books and if ever the twain can meet, but reading Erin Dionne’s new novel made me ponder the topic. My 5th through 7th grade female students liked Ms. Dionne’s last novel, Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, so I was eager to read the new one, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet. Reading Hamlet prompted some confusion on my part because of an obvious shortcoming about which I can do nothing: I am a guy. Although I am able to overlook my gender through almost all of the books I read and review, there are certain books that just don’t cross the girl-boy barrier well. Twilight is a perfect example. Through most of the novel, I said to myself, “Please, Bella, will you just stop whining for a minute?!” However, when I expressed this sentiment to some of my female colleagues, they looked at me in astonishment. I was told that I simply didn’t understand, that it’s a girl thing. If that is true, that certain books cannot be understood easily by guys, then I predict overwhelmingly female support for Ms. Dionne’s new novel featuring a girl who feels that she has a lot to whine about.

Hamlet Kennedy has survived until 8th grade by staying under the radar. It’s her sister Desdemona, the seven-year-old child prodigy super-genius, and her kooky parents, the Shakespearean scholars who dress up in Elizabethan tights and velvet cloaks, who enjoy and savor the limelight. Despite her unusual name, Hamlet wants nothing more than to survive her last year of middle school without embarrassing herself to death. However, her life takes a drastic turn when Dezzie (Desdemona’s nickname) starts taking art and music classes at Howard Hoffer Middle School. Drama increases for Hamlet when the mean girls Saber and Mauri befriend Desdemona so they can extract text and project information from her, and Hamlet cannot seem to prevent her sister from being used. Two more complications raise Hamlet’s tension level. First of all, her best friend Ty may like “like” her, which is a bit gross to Hamlet. Secondly, and more significantly, she discovers that she has an ironic and disturbing talent for reading and acting Shakespeare that may shine a very unwanted and unwelcome spotlight on her: “I hated Shakespeare. He was responsible for ruining my life. And as far as I was concerned, being able to read his words was no gift. It was just another thing that made me different—what I wanted to avoid at all costs” (94). Hamlet must find a way to address the rising waters in her life that want to drown her in a torrent that feels more complicated and hopeless than the Bard’s play that bears her name.

As a former 12th-grade British Lit teacher who taught Hamlet for years, there are several elements of The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne that I like. I enjoy how occasionally Hamlet will set the scene for the reader in her mind, a clever device that sheds light onto her thinking process and forwards the narrative. Also, my English teacher side cannot fail to appreciate Ms. Dionne’s numerous Shakespearean quotes and references, especially now that I am old enough to “get” them. However, there are times during this novel when the action slows down too much because of Hamlet’s insecurities and fears and it gets a little boring. Clearly, when it comes to primal girl angst, it’s just like ballet to me: I can watch it, I can understand what it is, I can appreciate its process, but I just don’t get it. Ms. Dionne’s book is not poorly written, but I feel a little excluded from its secrets. I surmise and hope readers will respond to Hamlet much like they respond to Twilight’s Bella, with empathy and understanding, not scorn and annoyance. I think it’s a safe guess that I will not get many male readers for The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne, but I have been wrong about that type of thing before, and I do have quite a few male readers of Stephenie Meyer. My greatest wish for this novel is that it normalizes Shakespeare for future readers with a little comedy and a little tragedy.

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