Calvin College Professor, Gary D. Schmidt, is a prolific author who has won many literary awards including two Newberry Honor medals. Schmidt remained undecided about a career until his senior year of college. He pondered many different options and finally decided to switch his major to English. Six years passed and he earned an MA in English literature and a Ph. D. in Medieval literature from Gordon College. He and his family have since settled into an Alto farmhouse here in Michigan, where he chops firewood and writes. His wife Anne (who recently passed away), observed of her husband, “I think that the projects that he’s working on are never far from his mind, so that when he’s chopping wood or shoveling snow or building a fire, he’s writing … And I think that talking with the kids about their lives, what makes them laugh, helps him in his novels — inspires him.”1
“The Wednesday Wars” is loosely based on Gary Schmidt’s own childhood, growing up on Long Island during 1967, a time of intense political upheaval. The game of Baseball, the war in Vietnam, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King all play important roles in the development of the main character – Holling Hoodhood. Holling’s troubles begin in the seventh grade. He is convinced that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, “has it out for him”. Holling, the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Jewish and Catholic students, is the only one remaining in Mrs. Baker’s classroom every Wednesday afternoon when the other students leave for religious instruction. Even though Holling thinks his teacher is torturing him during these afternoons, many hilarious misadventures occur involving rats, cream puffs, and chalk dust. As a solution, and to prevent any more catastrophes, Mrs. Baker comes up with a plan to give Holling the assignment of reading Shakespeare’s plays. As Holling reads through the plays he learns to understand the hearts of others, deal with a dysfunctional family, develop lasting friendships, and handle the fear of volatile times. He gradually progresses from an innocent boy to a wiser young man. I would recommend this book for all students as Schmidt perfectly captures the life of a teenager in a funny, yet insightful novel.
“Orbiting Jupiter” is a very different type of book than “Wednesday Wars”. While still exploring the psyche of young men, it examines very serious issues facing young men today. This is a book for more mature readers, dealing with issues like child abuse, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy. Joseph, the 14 year-old main character, is loosely based upon a young man Schmidt met in a prison for boys. His story is told through the eyes of Jack, a naïve 12 year-old boy in Joseph’s foster family. The story begins tragically, with the caseworker recounting the tale that led to Joseph being placed in a juvenile facility in Maine. He is the target of abuse by his own father, is a father himself to a little girl he has never met, and stands accused of attempted murder while in a confused mental state.
While there are some humorous stories scattered throughout the book, the overall tale is heart-wrenching. His foster family does a great job of providing Joseph with support, kindness, and love, which helps him learn to trust again; but so many events seem to conspire against him and continually pull him back to his old way of thinking — his abusive father is still in the picture, he encounters many instances of bullying at school, and he is desperately trying to find his daughter. The book was not all hopeless; there were some instances of grace — learning about Christ at the Christmas service, bonding with his foster family, enjoying farm life and, toward the end, finding his daughter. However, the ending to me seemed full of despair. In conclusion, despite the ending, I found the story compelling and couldn’t put it down. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to challenge their preconceptions of disadvantaged boys and glimpse what life is like for those facing insurmountable experiences.
1 DeVries, Myrna. “Opening the Book that is Gary Schmidt.” Calvin Spark, 14 May 2012, https://www.calvin.edu/publications/spark/2006/spring/schmidt.htm.