When I saw that this book was going to be my daughter's 6th grade summer reading book, I was pleased as punch. As an English major dork, I adore Shakespeare. I have been known to read the plays for pleasure. And I thought that exposing kids to Shakespeare in a roundabout way was sheer genius. All this before I even read the book. So it was delightful to discover that the book was fun and entertaining too.
The premise of the book is that Widge is a lowly apprentice who has been taught a version of shorthand by one of his masters. He has never known family or caring, just having been a means to an end in the indentured servitude that has comprised his entire young life so far. His latest master, a genial seeming man, has ordered Widge to steal Shakespeare's Hamlet by attending the play and transcribing it as it occurs. And to make certain that Widge does as he's bidden, he sends the rather scary Falconer with Widge as a sort of enforcer. But Widge doesn't manage to write down the play because he is too engrossed in the pageantry and wonder of the world of imagination. In failing to steal Hamlet, Widge somehow ends up as an apprentice in the Globe theater, falling further and further under the spell of acting, becoming a valued part of the theater family, and escaping the menacing Falconer. But he can't escape his task forever.
Blackwood has created a credible cast of characters and set them in a nicely rendered London in the time of Shakespeare. He has provided an intriguing and easy entry into a world that helps to define the literary world today and has done it without condescending to kids or under-estimating their intelligence. The tension that Widge feels about whether or not Falconer will come to claim him and punish him for his master is conveyed nicely to the middle grade reader. Blackwood's real triumph here though, is in weaving the underlying threads of right versus wrong (embodied here by the idea of intellectual property) and the importance of family (natural or found) in with such a meticulously drawn historical world. He imparts little asides about the times in almost every scene of the book but these instructive bits are so well integrated into the story that they never seem forced or out of place. Really, this is the sort of book I would have loved as a middle grade reader.
When I asked R. what she thought about the book, she gave me a long plot summary and then said, "I liked that he [the author] made them talk like they would and that there were secrets that some people didn't tell." She says she recommends it and so do I.