Twelfth Night for Kids

by Lois Burdett, Christine Coburn, Lois Burdett, Christine Coburn,
40 pages,
ISBN: 0887532330

A Child's Portrait of Shakespeare

by Lois Burdett,
64 pages,
ISBN: 0887532616

McBeth for Kids

by Lois Burdett,
64 pages,
ISBN: 0887532799

Romeo & Juliet:
For Kids

by Lois Burdett,
64 pages,
ISBN: 1552092291

Post Your Opinion
Children`s Books
by Bruce Bartlett

Lois Burdett's Shakespeare books just keep on coming: four to date (those above, plus a Midsummer Night's Dream), as well as a mini-biography of the Bard. They all have a structure of three elements: (1) illustrations on every page, done by Ms. Burdett's students (ranging in age from seven to eleven); (2) role-play letters or diary entries by the students, on roughly two-thirds of the pages (students' unedited spelling in the case of Macbeth and Twelfth Night, but corrected in the more recent Romeo & Juliet); (3) up to twenty lines of Ms. Burdett's rhymed-couplet retelling of the story on every page.

For the most part, the first two of these elements succeed quite nicely. The children have manifestly got into the spirit of the stories, and have enjoyed themselves in the process. Early into Twelfth Night for Kids, Viola (disguised as "Caesario") has gone into the employ of Orsino, on whose behalf (s)he goes to solicit Olivia. (For her part, Olivia has been steadfastly refusing the solicitations of Orsino.) The Viola-Caesario we see knocking at Olivia's door, in page-boy garb, gives us a profile that looks just girlish enough to give a hint of the secret; the ten-year-old artist has in her own way understood the gender-bender disguise motif so prevalent in Shakespeare's comedies. The same page has pieces of advice-to-the-lovelorn from seven-year-olds, one counselling Orsino to "Give up on Olivia.. You are giving her a masive headake"; another taking the contrary view that "Olivia is being very rood to Duke Orsino. I say: MARRY THE GUY!" About half-way into Macbeth for Kids, the eight-year-old who has drawn Banquo's ghost gives us an appropriately bloodied, ghoulish figure, glaring at a regal Macbeth who points a finger at the phantom. The accompanying thoughts for Macbeth, recorded by another eight-year-old, tell us how the ghost "looked at me sternly strate in the eye.. These aperishions of my mind threten me so."

While the children's illustrations and notes do lend the books a certain charm, the author's metrically-irregular, often-belaboured rhymed couplets have much less appeal. The verse in these volumes is not Shakespeare's, and is not in the form of a dramatic script, but a rambling narrative interspliced with some phrases from Shakespeare. The result often reads like an excruciatingly bad imitation of, say, a narrative poem by Pope or Byron. Consider this passage, when Juliet, already suffering from Romeo's banishment, comes under renewed parental pressure to marry Count Paris:

"Oh sweet my mother, cast me not away!

This marriage you must try to delay!"

Lady Capulet scoffed, "Talk not to me.

Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee!"

Juliet despaired, "I must think of a ploy.

Good nurse, hast thou not a word of joy?"

The nurse encouraged, "The Count is a fine catch!

I know you'll be happy in this second match."

"Speakest thou from thy heart?" Juliet cried.

"And from my soul, too," the nurse replied.

Even her servant had proved untrue.

Juliet thought of the Friar, "He'll know

what to do."

In a child-length version of the story, plot and characterization do need to be trimmed down. Nevertheless, the rewritten story should at least be faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's version, if not to its letter. This version does not show much understanding of either.

Ms. Burdett has Juliet say that "she must think of a ploy." In the same line, however, Juliet has already "despaired". She suffers despair and tries to think of a ploy? Perhaps within the same scene, or at opposite ends of a long speech, but within the same line? Quite apart from the improbability that the intended age-group will know the word "ploy", Shakespeare's account of Juliet's state of mind makes it clear that she has no "ploy". Instead, she appeals to her nurse, whose advice is well-intentioned practicality (better to take a well-heeled and eligible suitor than to mourn for a husband perpetually banished). Of course, the nurse's advice goes unheeded. But to strain for a rhymed couplet and write "Even her servant had proved untrue" does not reflect what Shakespeare has Juliet say: "Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain" means that the nurse will no longer be privy to the secrets of Juliet's heart. Juliet has not accused her of disloyalty.

If there is any proving untrue going on here, it is in the failure of the texts of Shakespeare Can Be Fun! to help us appreciate the world's most celebrated dramatic poetry. Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow" speech gets redone thus: "`Life's a trivial tale, when all is done./ Each day rattles on, one by one./ Creeping closer and closer to dusty death.'/ Life had lost all meaning for Macbeth." Even in his blackest moments, Macbeth's sense of life never hit such a rock-bottom of triviality.

The evident intention of a series like this is highly laudable: to kindle an enthusiasm for Shakespeare in elementary school children. But there must be ways of doing it that show a little more respect to his verse, to the genre of drama, and to the intelligence of young readers. 

Bruce Bartlett is a French teacher who's been taking his children to Shakespeare productions since they were vertical, and whose pets have all been named after characters in King Lear.


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