Your relationship with William Shakespeare likely depends on your high school English class experience. I’m fortunate that my first Shakespeare experience, Romeo and Juliet, was reasonably interesting in the hands of my 10th grade English teacher. (When she attempted to tactfully explain the bawdy humor, the room full of young teens was SHOCKED.) Later, I truly enjoyed The Merchant of Venice.
Subsequent college discussions (in the sorority house!) of films based on R+J and Hamlet convinced me that the Bard’s worth is worth diving into.
You don’t need to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in order to gain a new appreciation of his work; these days I’m more inclined to soak in some Shakespeare through clever adaptations and retellings. (1990’s teen rom-com Ten Things I Hate About You is a particular favorite).
I can’t wait to ask more questions about his writing inspiration and his days as an antiquarian bookseller when I chat with Charlie —live and in person at Bookmarks NC! —on October 17. (The event is free; registration is required. If you can’t make it to NC—which will be most of you—this event will be streamed and recorded via video for Book Club members, so you can view it at a later date.) If you aren’t signed up for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, you can do that here and mark your calendars for the event.
After rereading The Bookman’s Tale, I started thinking of other Shakespeare-inspired stories that capture the wit and wisdom of the Bard. Shakespeare is worth revisiting, if only in fiction, because his themes and characters remain distinctly modern. Today I’m sharing 16 titles for readers of all ages to celebrate Shakespeare. There’s something for everyone on this list, including historical fiction, family sagas, graphic novels, and charming board books.
Bonus recommendation: Our October flight pick is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It might not be Shakespeare-inspired, but this literary mystery is atmospheric, absorbing and delightfully bookish.
Holling Hoodhood has big things to worry about, like bullies, the Vietnam War, and staying out of trouble. While the rest of his seventh grade classmates attend religious instruction on Wednesday afternoons, he spends that time with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker. The worst part: she makes Holling read Shakespeare’s plays outside of class. He considers this a huge waste of time and assumes that Mrs. Baker simply does not like him. However, as Holling navigates the twists and turns of fate, and middle school, he recognizes parallels between his life and the works of Shakespeare. Adults will get just as much joy out of reading this Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel about courage, destiny, and Shakespeare’s legacy. More info →
This is Star Wars, Shakespeare-style, and it is genius. We stumbled upon this at our local indie bookstore and snatched it up, and soon my middle schooler was learning all about iambic pentameter, how to read a script, stage directions, and a whole bunch of tricky vocabulary, because Star Wars. Fun for its own sake, but an easy introduction to the Bard for young students. More info →
This is not your average Shakespeare biography. Bill Bryson and his down-to-earth wit take what little we know about Shakespeare and turn it into an engaging, colorful picture of the larger-than-life historical figure. Follow Bryson on his Shakespearean research journey via short interludes, including a trip to the bunker-like structure that houses the First Folios. With Bill as your genial guide, learn about how Shakespeare has impacted the English language and why he remains an important figure today. More info →
Scholars estimate that Shakespeare invented around 1700 commonly used words in the English language, plus countless phrases and colloquialisms. Movies, television, and popular culture frequently borrow from his plays and archetypes. According to Ken Ludwig, studying Shakespeare gives kids a head start on language and cultural references they’ll use for years. Ludwig's fun and, at times, unconventional methods connect Shakespeare’s timely themes to modern life. Adults will also gain appreciation and learn much from this kid-centered guide. More info →
Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew has been adapted for everything from film to opera to ballet to musical theater. Both Kiss Me, Kate and the 90s high school movie 10 Things I Hate About You (LOVE it) are based on the play. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler brings a witty contemporary retelling for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This one's on my TBR largely because of NPR, who calls this a "screwball of manners, more sweet than acidic, that actually channels Jane Austen more than Shakespeare." More info →
Our October Book Club pick is a literary mystery tailor-made for bibliophiles that begins in 1995 Hay-on-Wye, and then travels back in time, first to Victorian England, and then to Shakespeare’s time, all in the pursuit of the bookish truth. Robin Sloan says, "With The Bookman's Tale, Charlie Lovett tells us a terrific story—there's mystery and suspense, murder and seduction—but more important, he shows us how it's all connected, all of this: the reading and the keeping and the sharing of books. It forms a chain long and strange enough to tie a heartbroken young scholar from North Carolina back to the Bard himself, who might or might not have been William Shakespeare." More info →
Bianca, Cordelia, and Rose had the ultimate literary childhood. Their father, a famous Shakespeare professor, answered every question in Shakespeare quotes, named them after Shakespearean characters, and encouraged them to fight bullies by calling them "fat kidneyed rascals”" instead of jerks. The sisters all love to read, but that’s about all they have in common. Because they were all lost in their books, they neglected one another. When the sisters return home to grapple with their mother’s cancer diagnosis, they must confront their secrets, their shared histories, and their sisterhood. More info →
These board books make the perfect baby shower gift for a literary friend. A Midsummer Night’s Dream BabyLit is particularly dreamy. It takes elements from the play and pairs them with beautiful, simple illustrations in a “baby’s first counting book” style. Romeo & Juliet BabyLit includes pages like “One Balcony” and “Four Roses” along with snippets of Shakespeare’s poetry. Fortunately, the Romeo and Juliet board book takes great liberties with the play. No tragedy to be found in this adorable adaptation. More info →
This middle grade adventure story resembles a kid-friendly version of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. Widge’s master tasks him with stealing and copying Shakespeare’s newest play. When he enters the Globe Theater in order to find Hamlet, Widge gets swept up in the world of performers and stagehands. Full of sword fights, Shakespearean twists, and rich historical detail, this fast-paced middle grade novel makes a great family read-aloud or road-trip audiobook. More info →
Ophelia takes center stage in this dark, romantic Hamlet retelling. Smart, ambitious, and beautiful, Ophelia grows up at Elsinore Castle and eventually catches Prince Hamlet’s eye. When murder and mayhem erupts in Denmark, Ophelia must choose between her secret love or saving her own life. She plans a dangerous escape and becomes the hero of her own story. Klein’s plot points and even some of the dialogue come directly from the play itself, but her retelling takes a refreshing look at an oft-overlooked character. More info →
Fans of Dreamland Burning will enjoy this Hamlet retelling. Hanalee Denney faces hatred and discrimination as a mixed-race young woman in 1920s Oregon. Her father, Hank, died in a drunk-driving accident last year, and now his killer is out of jail, claiming that Hank was actually poisoned by the town doctor--the doctor who happened to swoop in and marry Hanalee’s mother. Hanalee wants answers, and in order to get them she consults a wandering “haint,” her father’s ghost. More info →
Audrey Niffenegger calls this Romeo and Juliet retelling "A strange and unexpected treat…elegantly written, touching, and fun." R is not your average zombie. Yes, he eats the occasional human, but he also enjoys simple pleasures, like Frank Sinatra’s music and collecting apocalyptic tchotchkes. When he meets Julie, all of the love-at-first-sight cliches come true. He feels warm, human again, but their star-crossed romance causes unexpected implications for humanity at large. More info →
This graphic novel Romeo and Juliet adaptation comes highly recommended by Brenna, producer of What Should I Read Next. Written in iambic pentameter, this hip-hop retelling is set in a "Blade Runner-esque" version of Brooklyn. Elizabethan theater meets samurai action movie as Tybalt and his Capulet crew battle it out with the Montagues. Tybalt gets top billing rather than the doomed couple, creating a fresh perspective on a tale as old as time. More info →
"Thou art a flame that burns within my breast, the singular desire within my heart..." You may not recognize these famous lines from The Backstreet Boys. Along with other chart-topping songs, “I Want It That Way” receives the Shakespeare treatment in this hilarious collection of pop song sonnets. This poetry collection includes exclusive song rewrites from the creators of the Pop Sonnets blog. Their clever wording makes me chuckle, and this little book will surely delight the English teacher, musical theater fan, or aspiring poet in your life. More info →
An atmospheric Midwestern version of Hamlet makes perfect fall reading. Edgar Sawtelle lives with his parents on a farm in northern Wisconsin. Born mute, he communicates via sign language and helps his family raise and train "Sawtelle dogs," a fictional breed. Edgar's peaceful world is disrupted when his uncle Claude returns to the farm. When his father dies unexpectedly, and Claude romances Edgar's mother, Edgar tries to prove his uncle played a role in his father's death, but flees to the wilderness when his plan fails. After coming of age in the north woods, Edgar turns toward home. More info →
Take King Lear, a sweeping epic about father-daughter relationships, cutthroat competition, and politics. Set it in modern day Iowa farmland. Win the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jane Smiley’s stark yet beautiful retelling begins with aging farmer Larry Cook bequeathing the family farm to this three daughters. When Caroline appears less-than-thrilled, her unsentimental father cuts her out of the will, exposing long-buried truths and repressed emotions. As Larry’s health declines, his daughters are tasked with running the farm in a harsh patriarchal world. Stunningly written, this complicated family drama is great on the page or via audiobook. More info →
What’s your relationship to the Bard? Have you read any of the titles here? What do you recommend adding to the list?