Ten Books To Introduce Kids (of any age! Adults, too!) to Shakespeare by Andi Diehn
When I was about 12 years old, I decided to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My mom was impressed. We went to the library and picked it up, along with Hamlet, just because, and I carried them home with a reverence usually reserved for books by Madeleine L’Engle and Noel Streatfield, my usual favorites that year.
But…what were these words? This wasn’t even English, was it? I didn’t understand any of it. Within a page or two of Midsummer, I was done, discouraged, disappointed. I didn’t even attempt Hamlet. Shakespeare, I decided, wasn’t for me.
It wasn’t until about five years later, when a high school English teacher got up in front of the class and performed the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with passion and total commitment that I was willing to give it another shot. And with daily read alouds, a steady stream of footnotes, discussions about plot, symbolism, history, and character, I fell in love.
The good news is, we don’t actually have to wait that long to enjoy Shakespeare. Actually, we enjoy him a lot more than we realize. Not only did he add more than 1,700 words to the English language, he also provides the foundations for countless books, movies, songs, TV shows, and blogs.
If you’re looking to inspire a love of Shakespeare in a kid of any age, check out these young adult novels. They’re the gateway to a lifelong connection with the greatest English writer of all time.
The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees
It’s a rare talent that can include the plot of the play Twelfth Night, the characters from Twelfth Night, and the character of Shakespeare in one novel to such great effect. Rees follows the story of what happens to the children that resulted from the great loves of Twelfth Night, who have to a world that’s been cursed by Malvolio.
The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love by A.E. Cannon
A quirky, funny, smart retelling of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, this book about three young people trying to get through a summer of working at the local video store, plus the beautiful rich girl that throws a square angle into the triangle, hits all the highs and lows of the irreverent play it’s based on.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Oh, Ophelia, you never quite get your moment, do you? Lisa Klein rights that particular wrong by giving Ophelia her own perspective and a chance to rewrite the famous plot. Klein weaves themes from other plays beside Hamlet into her novel and produces a smart book with a different take.
Street Love by Walter Dean Myers
Two kids from opposite sides of the socioeconomic tracks fall in love and despair at ever being accepted together. Sound familiar? Romeo and Juliet are reborn amidst the street sounds of Harlem and it’s edgy and beautiful.
Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet by Paula Marantz Cohen
For Bea, high school throws a twist when she seems to lose her best friend to the tides of the popular crowd. Luckily, English class provides a distraction in the form of a new teacher, who introduces her to Shakespeare. And the cool crowd, it turns out, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But Shakespeare could have told her that.
Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
A weird, beautiful book about a family with an interest in theater deeper than average. Set against a theater production of Twelfth Night and the years after, the story of two star-crossed cousins reflects the problematic, circumstantial situations of the close characters of the play by the same name.
The Cake House by Latifah Salom
Rosie’s father kills himself when he learns of his wife’s intentions to leave him for another man. Or does he? When Rosie’s father’s ghost appears to her in the garden, she questions everything she’s been led to believe and uncovers a nest of betrayal harsh enough for a comparison to Hamlet.
Something Rotten by Alan Gratz
Hamlet meets the crime genre. Horatio Wilkes doesn’t want to play detective, but when his best friend, Hamilton Prince, reveals that his father has been killed, they both realize that something is rotten in the town of Denmark.
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Zombies plus Shakespeare equals amazing! A zombie named R falls in love with a human named Julie and together they might be able to save at least most of the world. Plus, there’s a nurse who’s ever bit as funny in this novel as in Romeo and Juliet.
King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Susan Cooper excels at dark, mythical stories of children solving problems, and I was thrilled to discover that she’d turned her attention to Shakespeare. This novel takes inspiration from A Midsummer’s Night Dream and features the story of Nat, who plays Puck, yet finds himself transported back in time to Shakespeare’s England. It turns out history needs him.
Andi Diehn writes and edit children’s books at Nomad Press. She’s the author of Explore Poetry! (2015); Technology: Cool Women Who Code (2015); and Shakespeare: Investigate the Bard’s Influence