Not only is April Shakespeare’s birthday month — the 23rd is generally celebrated as his birth date — but 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death. So, yea forsooth, now’s a great time to learn about him and his works in some splendid books:
One of my favorite introductions to Shakespeare for very young children is Aliki’s book, William Shakespeare and the Globe. I’ve reviewed that earlier, so I’ll point you there for that.
Another great resource, suitable for children as young as 4-5 years, are Marcia Williams’ two volumes, Mr. William Shakespeare’s Plays and Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare, published in the UK by Walker Books and in the U.S. by Candlewick. (Confusingly, these have different titles in the U.S., so just realize there are only two volumes. Not four.)
Marcia Williams is a prolific author/illustrator who has drawn vivid, colorful, tasteful cartoon renditions of seven plays in each of these volumes, a mixture of histories, comedies, and tragedies.
They are fantastic. Great for whetting the appetites of small listeners, or even for reading as a short synopsis before attending a play.
Moving up in terms of complexity is this fascinating new title:
Will’s Words:How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by John Shelley published in 2016 by Charlesbridge
London in the days of Shakespeare was, in Sutcliffe’s words, “a bustling, jostling, clanging, singing, stinking, head-chopping, pickpocketing wonder of a city.” Just the sort of place you might like to escape from by means of a marvelous play at The Globe.
As she tells us the ins and outs of The Globe, Sutcliffe makes use of words and phrases coined or made famous by Shakespeare that are such a part of our language, we never bother even wondering where they originated. From “wild-goose chase” to “love letter,” Shakespeare beefed up and colorized the English language to an astonishing degree. Sutcliffe tells us the precise act and scene each of these Shakespeare-isms is found. Meanwhile, John Shelley’s radiant, gorgeous ink-and-watercolor illustrations are thoroughly engaging and broadly informative. Great for ages 6 and up.
Another beautiful book, released last year, combines biography and short glimpses of a few plays:
William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World’s Greatest Writer by Mick Manning and Brita Granström published in 2015 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Manning and Granström take a lovely, conversational tone to narrate short blocks of text, with each two-page spread devoted to one topic — street fairs, Anne Hathaway, learning his trade — or to one of the plays.
These pages are prolifically, beautifully illustrated with large scenes in lush color, and smaller vignettes adding side notes. A myriad Shakespeare quotes and speech bubbles pop up on throughout, creating an entirely engaging, interactive effect.
Everything about this book is impeccable. If you are a Shakespeare-loving family, you will love it. Suitable for a wide age span. Ages 4 and right on up.
For a more traditional, complete biography, turn to this older title from one of the masters, Diane Stanley:
Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare, by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema, illustrated by Diane Stanley published in 1992 by Morrow Junior Books
Stanley acknowledges in a beginning Author’s Note how little we actually know for certain about one of the most famous men in the history of the world. No diary entries. Not one personal letter. Very little about his parents, his wife, or his children.
So, we piece together the puzzle using other sources, and Stanley’s book not only pieces these together in a most readable, interesting, articulate way, but in the process she demonstrates a little bit about the processes and limitations of historical research. I actually love the places where she says to us, “We don’t know…” I find it refreshing and a great model for children in an era when we tend to smother the “we don’t know” bits.
Handsomely illustrated, with many details about Shakespeare’s world coming through in Stanley’s paintings. A bit on the lengthy side. For interested 6-year-olds and up from there.
Finally, there are a number of prose retellings of the plays which make them accessible to young children. These are another excellent way to prepare for seeing a production in the original language. I have used Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (20 plays), and E. Nesbit’s Shakespeare’s Stories for Young Readers (12 stories), but the retellings of Leon Garfield seem the most vibrant to me.
The New York Review Children’s Collection has combined Garfield’s two volumes into one deliciously-hefty tome, handsomely illustrated by Michael Foreman in black ink-and-wash. There are 21 stories, including histories, tragedies, and comedies, and they are not skimpy. The book is 564 pages long.
Garfield is a gorgeous writer. Here is someone whose wordsmithing we can trust with the wit and agony, drama and poetry, betrayal and romance of Shakespeare’s works. It’s a worthwhile, delightful read-aloud for elementary children as well as a joy for teens and adults. Great birthday gift!