Barbara Dee: Star-Crossed

Mattie is chosen to play Romeo opposite her crush in the eighth grade production of Shakespeare’s most beloved play in this Romeo and Juliet inspired novel from the author of Truth or Dare.

Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Back in March, I read a post from Barbara Dee that broke my heart. Dee had been asked to give an author presentation at a school. However, right before she was to speak, she was pulled aside and told that while the school was thrilled to have her speak on inclusivity…could she please keep it more general and NOT TALK ABOUT HER OWN BOOK?

Excuse me?

Of course I put Star-Crossed on my TBR immediately. Because obviously if a school is censoring the author…it’s probably something I want to read.

And it absolutely freaking is. Star-Crossed might be the best middle-grade fiction I have ever read…maybe the best Shakespeare retelling too! It follows Mattie, an eighth grade bookworm as she traverses the awkwardness of school play rehearsals–Romeo and Juliet, of course. Throughout the book, she slowly comes to realize she has a crush on fair Juliet.

Besides the cute story itself, there are two key factors that made me love this book. First, Mattie starts off with a crush on a boy, and then slowly falls into crush with Gemma. Later, her friend asks her if she might ever like boys again and she tells her it’s possible. Bisexual representation in a Middle Grade story! Yes! And Dee allows her MC to explore her feelings about it…which leads us to point #2.

Coming out is a process, and one that is mostly supported. We don’t see her come out to everyone–the story ends before that happens. But one friend helps her begin to come to terms with what is going on, and another person also helps her talk through it. Neither pressure her or ridicule her…it’s all very loving. I think this is something that is important to show in MG especially, so that kids can know that it doesn’t always have to be hard. It will be, sometimes, but there are supportive people out there.

I just loved this. I hope that not all schools are as closed minded as the one that shut Barbara Dee down, and that they put this book on their shelves. My library in Peoria had the book, and I’m so glad that they did. Books like this one should be available to kids who need to find themselves in the pages.

Retelling w/ MC LGBTQIA+

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Margaret Atwood: Hag-Seed

When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.

Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?

Opens mouth.

Shuts mouth.

Opens mouth.

Shuts again.

That was…an experience? I have so many mixed up thoughts, which I suppose is not completely unexpected, as this IS Shakespeare retold. I’ve mentioned before that I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare to begin with–it takes me time to come to terms with his plays. But, because this was Margaret Atwood, I wasn’t going to miss it, right?

I was immediately confused by some of the language. Granted, Felix is a snooty theater person, so his speech is “high elitist,” but it is still a little over the top. And the prisoners are just the opposite…is there such a thing as under the top?

And then there’s this sentence:

“Should that happen, his humiliation would be total; at the thought of it, even his lungs blush.”

 

Felix also really took care to describe the races of the prisoners. And I say that with my tongue all the way in my cheek because when he was first introducing us to the men, he would point them out as yellow, red, brown…you get the picture. It was extremely cringeworthy.

I’m sure a case could be made that Felix is an unreliable narrator and this is not actually how the author feels or would refer to people in real life. But I still don’t think it’s at all appropriate or called for. Just because a person is of color does not mean we actually need to refer to them BY that color, especially when in history those colors have had such negative connotations.

While the language really bothered me, I did appreciate the breakdown of the play itself. It was certainly an interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I read through the text before beginning this book, and didn’t quite grasp what happened–Felix’s class broke it down so much better! This is what I wish I would have had more of growing up–legitimate discussion of literature. We didn’t read many classics in school, so I missed this. I would have understood Shakespeare better had it been broken down this way, perhaps. I wish I could go back and take lit classes for fun now. It’s why I write this blog–analysis and discussion.

I’m sure all of this is completely unlikely. I know there are classes held in prisons, but full scale theater productions, with props and blackout performances? I can’t see that happening–especially where ministry dignitaries would be allowed unescorted by security. I will say it was an engaging book, but I cannot rate it very highly due to the racial disregard shown. We must do better.

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I won a copy of this book from Hogarth Books in their Read It Forward newsletter. This post contains affiliate links.

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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

I have to tell you something. I don’t like Shakespeare.

I KNOW RIGHT? What kind of book nerd am I? It’s basically against the law to not like him. But I just find him uncomfortable.

Still, he’s one of those famous people in our history that one should know things about. So when Bill Bryson’s bio popped up on sale…why not? I like Bill Bryson.

I’d recommend this to anyone needing a brush up on good ol’ Will. The book is 211 pages long. Nice and short. There’s not really a ton of information out there about the man, so most of it is more historical context than anything. There’s a bit about his wife and the plays, the theater, some about the politics of the day, and the plagues. It’s really nothing complicated. Just a short and sweet little history about the 16th century.

Bryson knows how to do his job. He never overdoes a book. His histories are interesting but factual, and he does what he can to eliminate conspiracy theories. I’ve read a few from him before, and I have several on my list to read in the future. He never disappoints.

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