Book Reviews for April 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

April 14, 2023

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Did you know that April 23 is Shakespeare’s birthday? (Well, we think it might be. No records exist to nail down the exact date!)

It’s when we celebrate it, anyway. And I did a lot of Bard-related reading this month! I started by exploring the idea of a Shakespeare unit for my homeschool, but then I got sucked in and started reading more for my own enjoyment. (Don’t fear Shakespeare, my friends! He’s nice!)

I also wrapped up a few books that I started in honor of Middle Grade March.

Come on in and see what’s new! (Or, cruise the oldies on my Master List of Book Reviews.)

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads and The Storygraph. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

By Ken Ludwig

Learn how to memorize Shakespeare from a Tony-winning playwright

You’ll love it if you want one simple strategy to instill a love of Shakespeare in your kids

Well, I did NOT expect to read through this whole book! I figured I’d skim it for the teaching tips and shelve it for future reference. NOPE. This was just TOO MUCH FUN. I read it cover to cover. I loved taking a close look at each passage—my inner English major was so happy—and why it’s worthy to commit to memory.

If you DO want to teach your children Shakespeare, then it’s important you know this book does NOT contain “curriculum.” No, no, no. Fie on that. It contains only one basic strategy for “teaching” Shakespeare: Memorize It. Ludwig walks you through 25 passages that he taught his kids to memorize. He explains how he did it so that we can do it too. Simple as that!

The real fun here IS Shakespeare. It’s reading his words, figuring out what they mean, and then just taking a bath in them because they are so delicious.

There’s also a pretty dope bibliography in the back.

Content warnings: None

William Shakespeare & the Globe

By Aliki

A wonderfully illustrated bio of Shakespeare, as well as a history of the original and reconstructed Globe theaters

You’ll love it if you enjoy blurby fact books

The first three-quarters of the book tells the story of Shakespeare’s life. The final quarter discusses the Globe Theater and the replica that was built in the ’90s.

This one’s low on text and high on illustrations.

Content warnings: None.

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

By Diane Stanely and Peter Vennema

The life and times of Shakespeare told in traditional picture book style

You’ll love it if you want to give your kids a robust intro to the Bard

This picture book focuses solely on Shakespeare and his work. You learn the little we know for sure about his life, but there’s also a lot of fun detail about stagecraft, theatergoing, costumes, scenery, and politics.

It’s dense with info but not too long, making it a great choice for a simple intro to the “man for all time.”

Content warnings: None

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

By Michael Rosen and Robert Ingpen

A meatier, reference-style children’s biography of Shakespeare and his times

You’ll love it if you want a longer look at this great poet

Here, you’ve got a much longer picture-book-style bio of William Shakespeare. The illustrations are more lifelike than the other two children’s biographies here, and there’s a lot more information that’s framed around questions that a young person might want to know, such as, “Why is Shakespeare so important? Why do we still read his works?”

One section of the book is devoted to summaries of his plays.

Content warnings: None

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare

Two pairs of lovers and a group of everyday workmen enter a magical forest filled with fairies and fall in and out of their spells (and love).

You’ll love it if you want to read Shakespeare’s most accessible comedy

What a blast from the past. I played Helena in my high school production of this play, and it was such fun. This play is straight-up brilliant fun. The Arkangel audio version is A+.

This time around, I appreciate Bottom a lot more. (In high school, I thought he was just B-plot comic relief) He really is awesome actually. He’s at the bottom of the social ladder, yet when he becomes the paramour of the Queen of Faeries, he essentially remains who he is, wanting (not riches or power) but only oats and a back scratch. Yet, he longs for the glories of the stage and wants to play all the parts in the play because he’s confident that he can do them justice.

I’d also forgotten how the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play is an echo of Romeo and Juliet, and it reminds us of what happens when the “blocked love” of young people goes terribly tragic rather than comedic. Including it here, even in fun-making, reminds us of how easily things could’ve gone the other direction and (somehow) makes us happier at the end…happy that it was a good dream and not a nightmare.

Content Warnings: None, really, in the straight text, but you’re going to get some sexual innuendo in any type of production, film or theater.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

By J. R. R. Tolkien

The epic saga takes its time wrapping up.

You’ll love it if you love battle scenes, love scenes, and bittersweet endings

Battles. Lots of battles. The first part of this book details how the good guys defeat the bad guys. Then, Tolkien spent a long time explaining what happened to everybody, and it took forever for everyone to travel back home.

But nothing beats the segment where Sam and Frodo limp their way to Mount Doom with Gollum on their heels—and what happens after. That alone is worth the price of this book.

Then, there’s the crazy chapter that I wasn’t expecting: “The Scouring of the Shire.” Head over to Goodreads to get my full take on this because it’s too long for this roundup.

Content warnings: Battles, but it’s all blood and glory. Andy Serkis yells his guts out in the audio narration, which is just as perfect as the other two were.

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth Von Arnim

Four women high-tail it to Italy for a month in spring

You’ll love it if you enjoy introspective, meandering stories wrapped in Italian beauty

The first segment of this book is charming and relatable. Two women, Lotty and Rose, are toying with the idea of renting an Italian castle for a month in spring. They’ve had a long, dreary winter in London, and they’re both trapped in loveless marriages, and they need to get away, but…the GUILT. It was exquisite to watch them grapple with this and finally decide to take the plunge.

Once they get to the castle, there are two other ladies (a gorgeous heiress and a malcontent spinster) who share the castle with them, and then the book got slow for me. The plot kind of stalled and sputtered a bit for me…but what came through loud and clear is the transformative power of beauty to reawaken us to life. It makes us beautiful, so we act beautiful, and others treat us like we’re beautiful, and it’s a beautiful cycle that repeats to our benefit.

Content warnings: None. I was afraid that the women were going to have naughty affairs when they arrived in Italy, but they behaved like civilized humans.

The Wizards of Once

By Cressida Cowell

Unlikely heroes perform hilarious, ill-advised acts, and we are kind of scared for them

You’ll love it if you like fairy-tale-esque books that break all the rules

In honor of Middle Grade March, I decided to give this magical tale a try. It was cute and funny, but it didn’t really capture me until the very end. Then, I sat up and said, “Hm! Interesting.” No spoilers, but I was glad that I stuck it out. This is the first book in a series, and it really can’t be read as a standalone with perfect satisfaction.

The two main characters, Xar and Wish, are very distinctive and loveable, with giant flaws that make them interesting. I wonder how this book connects to The Tempest and the Dream because the sprites and magical creatures have names that STRONGLY hail from those two Shakespeare plays.

The book is obviously crafted with a lot of thought. I love the idea that “stories always mean something, even if we’re not sure what.” That’s likely what the author was genuinely thinking as she felt her way through the writing process.

The major downside for me was the writing! For some reason, it was a little difficult to fully immerse myself in the short, choppy sentences. I felt that the story could’ve been better with a higher level of craft. Having said that, the low-ish reading level, the humor, and the illustrations are EXACTLY why I handed this to my teenage nephew.

Content Warnings: Best for ages 8+, due to the wickedness of the witches and some intense scenes.

The Tale of Despereaux

By Kate DiCamillo

A tiny mouse performs big deeds

You’ll love it if you enjoy emotional animal adventures in medieval times

I have a soft spot for Kate DiCamillo. I love the way she writes, and apparently, my boys do, too. This was a can-you-read-more-pleeeeeeease? kinda book.

The story is simple, but the telling makes it feel grand. An especially tiny mouse falls in love with a princess and vows to honor her. When dark forces put the princess in danger, the mouse steps up to save her. That’s just ONE of the plots. There are three nonlinear plots that weave together in the final section of the book.

There are symbols and allusions galore. Beautiful words like chiaroscuro, perfidy, and empathy. There’s a Narrator with a capital N, who addresses the reader directly, asks questions, defines the vocab, and mulls over the big themes.

Ultimately, this book is about the mix of light and darkness that we all have inside us, and it’s one of those classics that will appeal to kids over a wide span of years.

Content warnings: None, although there are some things that could affect the especially tenderhearted. Ex: Miggory Sow gets hit on the ear every day. Princess Pea’s mother dies.

The Black Star of Kingston

By S. D. Smith

The backstory of Old Natalia

You’ll love it if you’re reading these rabbity tales with your kids.

Before moving on to the third “big” Green Ember book, we’re going to fill in the blanks with these short novellas that provide backstory to the old tales and legends referenced by Picket and Heather and the rest in the main storyline.

It gives some of the origin story behind the royal crown and the actual Green Ember stone itself. It also explains where the famous phrase comes from, “My place beside you. My blood for yours. Till the Green Ember rises, or the end of the world!”

Adding to Your TBR?

Check out this handy digital TBR spreadsheet that you can pull up on your phone whenever you’re at the bookstore or library.

More along these lines…

6 Comments

  1. Lynn

    The Enchanted April sounds like a great summer read! I always add books to my to-be-read list when you share what you have been reading.

    Reply
  2. Holly

    I’ve been floundering on whether or not to read Enchanted April. I love reading books set in Italy and have been wanting to read the novel of Under the Tuscan Sun, but slow books make it a tough read. I think you just convinced me to give it a try, at least check it out from the library. 🙂

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      The beginning of Enchanted April was fun to read because I SOOOO connected to Rose’s and Lotty’s dilemma of wanting to do something for themselves yet feeling so guilty. The descriptions of the Italian castle and the food are just lovely! After they actually got to the castle and settled in, the book slowed up for me. And the ending can be described as abrupt. Maybe try a few chapters and see how it goes? 😊

      Reply
  3. Elena

    Not sure if this is a repeated comment; it thought I was a robot and didn’t seem to publish my comment, lol. I loved Enchanted April. I think I read it prior to visiting Italy in 2017 and it was just so dreamy. I won’t be going to Italy again anytime soon, so I should pick up the book to relive the memories!

    Tale of Despereaux also has sweet memories. I read it with my baby brother around 15 years as a bedtime read for a month. I look forward to reading it with my son. I had not thought about it until I saw your post, but I have it stored away, so I should grab it soon!

    Linking an author interview and review of a new favorite WWII middle-grade novel, if interested!

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      I love that you have such wonderful memories with these books, Elena!

      Reply

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