January 2010

An eighth grader in an Elizabethan freak show

By Erin Dionne
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Erin Dionne, author of Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, has again found a way to capture the sheer mortification of being the average eighth grader. But Hamlet Kennedy, the heroine of The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, feels anything but average, much to her dismay. With parents who are professors obsessed with “The Bard” and a seven-year-old sister who is taking college courses, Hamlet feels like she has landed in the middle of an Elizabethan English freak show. As she says, “I ended up with not just any boy’s name, but the name of a tragic Denmarkian prince who spoke to skulls and had a thing for his mother. So I’m a little touchy about it.”

By the eighth grade, Hamlet has almost accepted her fate—but then her big-brained baby sister is forced to take “remedial” classes at her middle school, and her parents are asked to take part in a “Salute to Shakespeare” unit in her English class. Hamlet fears that there is no escaping this “total tragedy.”

Hamlet is spunky, smart and sensitive. Her tell-it-like-it-is voice carries the novel and makes readers of any age sympathize with her “tragedies.” You never fault Hamlet for being so melodramatic, though; it’s not only practically genetic, but it’s also part of being in middle school. When you’re 13, almost every day in your life seems as bad as the life of Shakespeare’s Danish prince.

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet would be an excellent choice for any preteen—and her parents. Girls will love Dionne’s accurate descriptions of middle-school life, from the two prissy bullies intent on humiliating our heroine to her crush on the most popular boy in school. Parents will appreciate the novel for its focus on the importance of accepting yourself and on open communication among family members. As the Bard himself says, “All the world’s a stage.” This book just might inspire the tween in your life to share all of her “total tragedies” with you.

Dana Britt teaches ninth grade English in Washington, D.C. She wasn't always as big a fan of the Bard as she is now and her middle school experience was a total tragedy, too.

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