Shakespeare and Story Bibles
As I was searching recently for Shakespeare resources for my kids–who are 3 and 5–I harbored a nagging, undefined feeling that what I was doing was…not normal…and perhaps taking the homeschool prejudice for “great books” a little too far. Do kids who are still in diapers really need Macbeth? Do we really want to arm them against correction with sayings like, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much!” or “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
After surveying contemporary kids’ books on the subject, there certainly does seem to be an unspoken assumption that kids don’t need Shakespeare until they are teens. Or tweens at most.
But however unstudied, Christians have a unique approach to literature. Unlike rows of new stories for children you find in any bookstore today, perhaps the most valued Christian kids’ book is the story Bible. And even the worst of them are still based on the idea that we want–albeit with differing ideas as to age-appropriateness–to give our kids access to Biblical stories and truths we treasure as adults. The point of kids’ reading is not only to create imaginary worlds for kids to get lost in, but to give them the keys they will need later to open the door to adult literature.
What I had hoped to find in my searching was a book sort of like The Jesus Storybook Bible for Shakespeare’s stories. Poignant and expressive illustrations, accessible to the very young but engaging to the older child. To my knowledge, that book isn’t out there. Not yet. What is out there, though, are some very good books that will hit various stages. And perhaps most exciting for me, retellings from earlier generations–the Shakespeare equivalent of The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine F. Vos.
You don’t have to get into the minutia of a play to begin familiarizing kids with Shakespeare’s world. The names of the characters, the setting, all the details of a foreign world can be absorbed by very young children just the way we learn our numbers or the alphabet. And perhaps they’ll have a leg up when it comes to high school English class, right? Well, even if not, it seems like more rewarding reading for parents than many picture books out there.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who holds this view. See the new line of BabyLit Board Books by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver, which includes images based on Romeo and Juliet organized into a counting book.
For Kids Ages 4-8
- The Best of Shakespeare: Retellings of 10 Classic Plays by E. Nesbit. Haven’t read all of this yet, but I hope to read it with my girls soon. Some kids may not be ready for it until they are 8 or 10, but this is one book I’d compare to Catherine Vos’s The Child’s Story Bible. Challenging but yet still accessible, and I really can’t wait to read it to my girls. (Maybe after we get done, I’ll do a more in-depth review. Would be interesting to compare these retellings to some others I mention here.) You might also like to know that this book can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99 in a Kindle version, or may be downloaded for free in several formats here. (Also see E. Nesbit’s Kindle page, with lots of freebies.)
- Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare by Peter Vennema and Diane Stanley. Technically this one is for 9-12 year-olds, but I think it could stretch to this age group. If your kid is a reluctant reader, just wait a few years. Otherwise, it’s a nice introduction to his life at this age. My only concern about the book theologically is its rather “puritanical” view of the Puritans. But that’s a topic that is easily discussed, and profitably as well, since this would probably be a read-a-loud at this age and anti-Puritan bias is common in kids’ lit.
- William Shakespeare and The Globe by Aliki. I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy of this one this week, but the word on many homeschool blogs is that it’s a Shakespeare standard. (Any of you readers have a review you’d like to plug??) If you’re interested, my guess if you can get it at many libraries…but be aware that you can get a discount from Amazon.com if you buy this book and Bard of Avon together.
- The Tempest by Bruce Coville, Ruth Sanderson and William Shakespeare. Bruce Coville is a kids’ book author, but also a teacher, actor and playwright. And his understanding of stories shows here. Sadly, published in 1996, this book along with many others of his retellings of Shakespeare’s plays have gone out of print. However, I found my copy at a library, and if all else fails, you can get a recording of his version of The Winter’s Tale as an audiobook, though it might be better suited for 9-12 year-olds. Also, if you go looking for Coville’s books, be aware that some of his illustrators leave a little to be desired, in my opinion. Not so for The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, which both have fantastic art.
For Kids Ages 9-12
Just as an aside, there are a few novels that might be considered appropriate for this age-group by some, including a couple of novels by our own Janie Cheaney. But today’s focus is picture book biographies and retellings of Shakespeare’s plays, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for those reviews. (Plus, I believe Janie’s Shakespeare books were written for a YA audience anyway.)
- Charles and Mary Lamb’s version of Shakespeare’s stories have been around since the 1800s. Here’s what one modern reader had to say about them on Amazon.com: Although this book is written for children it is great for all ages and is great to get the basic story line before you go to a play. I read most of the plays in this book (I have not yet read all of them) when I was 11. Now that I have been reading the actual plays of Shakespeare I always start by reading the short version of the play in this book and than read the actual play. I can understand what is going on much better that way. I also recommend “Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children” by Edith Nesbit which gives about ten page versions of each story verses the thirty pages per story in this book and also has a smaller vocabulary which makes it better for younger children.
- Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams. This book could certainly be appreciated by many kids younger than 9. But its comic book format allows for many layers of storytelling, and the humor and richness of the story will take many readings for kids to fully mine. At its core, though, this is a very succinct and wonderfully illustrated presentation of Shakespeare’s plays. So much so that if your family were going to purchase one picture book on the subject, I think this would have to be it. To be perfectly blunt, I am not much of a comic book fan. But this book may have changed my mind. Many of the unsavory bits of the plays are smoothed over, and the scary parts are not nearly as blood-curdling as in some other books I’ve seen. Yet for all that, the book doesn’t loose any interest. A great way to get kids ready for Shakespeare later on…or for families who want their younger kids to enjoy a summer outing to Shakespeare in the Park.
The last book I’ll recommend is Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection, selected by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Paul Howard. Many parents who’ve chosen classical education know the benefit of memorization when it comes to whetting a child’s appetite for great stories and ideas. I draw your attention to this book first because the poems in it are marvelous and would be a great resource for drawing poems to memorize, though I wouldn’t let my younger children read it alone. (Some of the poems are a bit too depressing for the littlest ones.) But as an anthology that includes three poems from Shakespeare, it’s a nice illustrated resource giving kids a taste of beautiful things. Plus, Michael Rosen is an author you’ll want to know in future, having produced a Shakespeare resource for older kids as well as fun toddler books like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Of course, Shakespeare’s poetry may easily be found online for free or in this free iphone app. But some of you might like to have a “special” poetry book for your kids to grow up with.
Also, for you parents who are just getting started in raising kids or homeschooling them, squidoo.com has a wonderful post on books and other resources such as animated videos called Shakespeare for Children.
Once you’ve made it through these jewels, I hope your kids will be one step closer to the stories we love and chomping at the bit to get into real Shakespeare…or at least something like Janie’s historical fiction set in Shakespeare’s theatre, The Playmaker. And hopefully I’ll be ready to review it and other books for older kids soon!
Any thoughts on these books? Have you used any of them…or know of something better?