The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet

4.3 88
by Erin Dionne

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All Hamlet Kennedy wants is to be a normal eighth grader. But with parents like hers - Shakespearean scholars who actually dress in Elizabethan regalia . . . in public! - it's not that easy. As if they weren't strange enough, her genius seven-year-old sister will be attending her middle school, and is named the new math tutor. Then, when the Shakespeare Project is

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All Hamlet Kennedy wants is to be a normal eighth grader. But with parents like hers - Shakespearean scholars who actually dress in Elizabethan regalia . . . in public! - it's not that easy. As if they weren't strange enough, her genius seven-year-old sister will be attending her middle school, and is named the new math tutor. Then, when the Shakespeare Project is announced, Hamlet reveals herself to be an amazing actress. Even though she wants to be average, Hamlet can no longer hide from the fact that she- like her family - is anything but ordinary.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excellent choice for middle school readers." -School Library Journal
Publishers Weekly
Hamlet, named for her Shakespeare-obsessed parents’ favorite play, is starting the school year with the goal of fitting in. Not so easy when her parents walk around in Elizabethan garb and her seven-year-old genius sister, Desdemona, will be beginning eighth grade alongside her. Hamlet’s two nemeses immediately befriend her sister and her crush doesn’t notice her (though her male best friend is supposedly crushing on her). The final straw is the Shakespeare festival at school. When selected in class to read from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet proves to be a brilliant reader of the Bard, a skill she quickly tries to hide. Unsurprisingly, she must decide if it’s better to shine as herself, both at school and at home, or to blend in the background. Hamlet’s parents and circumstances feel over the top, but her emotions will resonate with anyone who has been embarrassed by family or confused by boys. Dionne’s (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies) pacing is a bit slow (the story is structured in three acts), but her voice is relatable and engaging. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Eighth-grader Hamlet Kennedy, so named by her slightly obsessed Shakespearean-scholar parents, works hard to be normal and fit in at school. This becomes even more difficult when her genius seven-year-old sister begins attending her middle school. Hamlet offers her guidance and is stung not only when her advice is rejected, but also when Desdemona befriends two mean girls who have picked on Hamlet for years. On top of everything else, her teachers announce a special Shakespeare unit, and Hamlet is assigned the starring role in A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Suddenly, blending into the crowd is no longer an option and she must find the courage to embrace her talent as a Shakespearean performer and her family's quirkiness. Hamlet's narration is charming, and readers will empathize entirely with her embarrassment at both her clueless parents and her wavering between trying to protect her younger sister and allowing her to find out the hard way how to pick friends. Add a bit of romantic intrigue involving mysterious origami pigs and you have an excellent choice for middle school readers.—Caroline Tesauro, Radford Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Eighth grader Hamlet (named by her Shakespeare-crazed, professorial parents) has even more than a ghastly name to deal with in the complicated script of her life. Her seven-year-old sister, Desdemona, a genial genius, is starting classes at Hamlet's school, and she's expected to somehow ease the tyke into middle-school society. In the face of her sister's brilliance, Hamlet has always been able to fly under her parents' radar. But now, her newly discovered talent for performing Shakespeare (in a classroom A Midsummer Night's Dream exercise), to the astonishment of her teacher and classmates, has drawn unwanted attention. Even more tragically, her best (guy) friend seems to have developed a romantic interest in her, and she's failing math and needs tutoring from . . . her little sister. ("Such an injury would vex a saint!" as the Bard would have it.) What's a determinedly average girl to do? Hamlet believably grows to fit the new challenges in her life, and her frustrations, presented in a good-humored, first-person narrative, are entertainingly contained within the three Shakespearean(ish) acts of this amusing tale, which captures some of the pitfalls of middle school. (Fiction. 10-14)
Sisterly bonding, the sweet flutterings of a first romance, and a creatively contrived comeuppance for the mean girls make this a cheerful read.
Jacqueline Bach
Hamlet Kennedy doesn't just know her Shakespeare, she lives it. Her parents, both Shakespearean scholars, and her genius 7-year-old sister, Desdemona, who will attend the same middle school, all threaten to make this the worst start to a semester ever. It doesn't help that a secret admirer keeps giving her origami pigs and that her best friend, Tyler, might have a crush on her. In a semester filled with multiple embarrassing episodes, failed attempts to protect her sister from so-called friends who use her for her brain, and surrealist art projects, will Hamlet eventually cheer "Huzzah" or keep throwing Shakespearean insults at her classmates? Dionne crafts a sweet, often humorous, romance suitable for upper elementary and middle school readers. This novel also features a contemporary twist to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Reviewer: Jacqueline Bach
Children's Literature - Lauri Berkenkamp
Hamlet Kennedy is an eighth grader with more to worry about than just finishing middle school. Her seven-year-old super-genius sister is coming to middle school to take classes with her, her parents are Shakespeare professors who insist on living as if they were at a Renaissance fair, she has a mysterious secret admirer who keeps leaving her origami pigs in her locker, and she is the target of the two meanest girls in her grade. Hamlet chafes at the responsibilities her parents put on her regarding watching out for her brainy sister, and, when her sister becomes part of the mean girls' group, Hamlet thinks school cannot get any worse. It can, though, as she discovers that her class project is to produce a complete production of Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Through the course of the novel, Hamlet discovers a hidden talent for drama, the identity of her secret admirer, the sneaky plot of the mean girls to use her younger sister's smarts for their own benefit, and a way to help her parents see that she needs her own space and individual accomplishments. This novel, geared to upper-elementary and early-middle school readers, is a sweet, if formulaic, take on fitting in and being an individual at the same time. Hamlet is a winning and likeable protagonist with whom readers will strongly identify. The characterization of her family is slightly over the top, although middle-school age readers will likely feel compassion for Hamlet as she experiences her parents' mortifying volunteerism at school. The novel also introduces readers to the world and words of Shakespeare in a very engaging way, which is no easy feat when trying to attract a younger audience. Reviewer: Lauri Berkenkamp

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Product Details

Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.18(w) x 11.34(h) x 0.78(d)
750L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I hadn’t figured out a way to stop time, join the circus, or make myself invisible. I hadn’t been able to contract a serious (but not life-threatening) illness, change my identity, or get into the witness protection program. I hadn’t even been able to talk my mother into staying home or waiting in the car.

Instead, I had to follow Mom—dressed like an Elizabethan-era superhero with purple velvet cloak billowing and bells a’tinkling—down the hall. I had to escort my sister to the main office. I had to act like this was normal.

I had to start eighth grade.

Every seventh and eighth grader in the main hall watched us like we were a parade: They stopped spinning locker dials and cut off “how was your summer” conversations. The already confused sixth graders just stood and stared. I couldn’t blame them. I mean, how often do a woman dressed in full Shakespearean regalia, a seven-year-old, and a humiliated eighth grader traipse through the middle of a junior high school on the first day of classes?


So I kept my eyes glued to the floor a few feet in front of me, my face neutral, stayed as far back from them as I could . . . and tried not to see the gaping mouths or hear the giggles and murmurs that filled in behind us as we passed. Just as we reached the main office, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my two least favorite people: Saber Greene and Mauri Lee, nudging each other. Ugh.

Mom pushed the office door open and went in, followed by my sister. I scooted in last, which at least cut off my view of the not-so-dynamic duo, and tried to pull the heavy, slow-moving door closed.

“Good will to you.” It was Mom’s standard greeting.

Mrs. Pearl, the school secretary, didn’t even blink at Mom’s billowy poet blouse, cloak, severe bun, or teeny round reading glasses. To her, I’m sure my mother’s seventeenth-century attire was the height of style. No one had ever seen the secretary leave the office. For all we knew, she could have been there since the 1600s.

“Good morning and welcome back! This must be our new student,” Mrs. Pearl chirped. She leaned over the half wall surrounding her desk to get a glimpse of my sister, who was barely tall enough to see over it. Dezzie gave her a tight smile.

Our secretary sat down and pecked at the keys on her computer, one finger at a time. “Now, let me see . . . it’s Kennedy, right?”

My mother nodded. “Desdemona Kennedy.”

I shifted from foot to foot, feeling anxiety coil in my belly. This was not the way eighth grade was supposed to start. The computer churned and gurgled.

“Here you are! What a pretty name! Unique, like your sister’s.” Mrs. Pearl scanned the screen. “Schedule . . . schedule . . . Here we go!” The first bell rang.

“Is that the late bell?” Mom asked as the buzzing died down. She twirled the tassels on her cloak and picked at the hem. Dezzie rocked back and forth, from heel to toe, while we waited. I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my capris and clenched my fists.

“Three-minute warning,” Mrs. Pearl explained. My mouth went as dry as the top of her desk. This was actually happening. Would the freeze-frame scene in the hall be repeated every day? “Then we ring the late bell.”

“Well, better three hours too soon than a minute too late,” Mom replied, using one of her favorite Shakespeare quotes. I cringed.

Mrs. Pearl nodded. Her printer whirred to life. “Now, Desdemona,” she said, plucking the paper off the tray, “these are your classes. I see that your day ends after fourth period?”

“Yes,” Mom said. “That’s when she’ll go home to work on her college curriculum.” She placed a hand on my sister’s shoulder.

“And Hamlet will escort her to each room, or should I assign a student helper to do that?” Mrs. Pearl asked. The three pairs of eyes—Mom’s, Dezzie’s, and Mrs. Pearl’s—swung in my direction. I swallowed hard, then nodded.

Like it or not, my seven-year-old sister was in eighth grade with me.

This is how it happened:

The Scene: Two weeks before school begins. Mom, Dad, and me in the living room. Gold velvet drapes hang to the floor, heavy dark furniture lines the perimeter of the room. It’s clear that this space isn’t used much. Mom and Dad, seated on the sofa—what they call the “settee.” Me, in the chair across from them—what I call the “hot seat.”

Mom (grinning): We have something special to tell you!

Me (knowing that “special conversations” + living room = not good): . . .?

Mom: We have been told that Desdemona needs some additional coursework before taking her next step. And we think it would be perfect if she did that work with you.

Me (sure I hadn’t heard right): With me? At HoHo?

They nod.

Dad: She needs the social experience. She’s too young for high school.

Me (shocked): She’s too young for eighth grade too!

Mom and Dad exchange glances.

Me (trying to regain control): She’ll be bored. The work’s too easy for her. Teachers won’t know what to do with her.

Mom (frowning): She is going to follow her special academic curriculum in the afternoons, but will be taking regular fine art and music classes in the morning at Howard Hoffer. The decision has been made.

From that point on, there was no changing their minds.

See, Dezzie’s a genius. Certifiable. Her IQ is off the charts—she scored a 210 on some test when she was only two years old. Whatever that number means, it was high enough for two newspapers and a magazine to write about her. At four, Dezzie ripped through the assigned reading for my parents’ courses before Thanksgiving. She could barely hold a pencil, so she dictated assignments into a mini voice recorder. Seriously.

Mom and Dad homeschooled her, let her sit in on the classes they teach at Chestnut College outside of Boston, and gave her every “academic opportunity” they could.

So by the time she was five, she’d started her “immersion projects.” That’s her name for them. My name is “nutty obsessions.” A nutty obsession project starts when something catches her curiosity—something she reads about, something on the news, in a museum, whatever—and then she learns everything there is to know about it. So far, she’s “immersed herself” in Chinese political history, the Black Plague and its effect on medieval Europe, Olympic curling, Greek drama, and ornithology (the geektastic study of birds). She was supposed to be going to college full-time this year, but since she hadn’t taken any art or music, Chestnut College wouldn’t let her declare a major until she held a paintbrush or sang a song. Howard Hoffer Junior High to the rescue.

And Hamlet Kennedy to the land of embarrassment.

Mrs. Pearl passed Dezzie’s schedule to my mom.

“So, Desdemona will be in Mr. Symphony’s homeroom, with her sister,” Mrs. Pearl said. By the way her eyes jumped from my mom to Dezzie, it was clear that she didn’t know who she should be talking to. Behind me, the door kept opening as other kids came in to deal with first-day problems. I gazed at a spot over Mrs. Pearl’s desk and hoped that no other eighth graders were in the room.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my sister. And we actually get along, mostly because we don’t have much in common. There’s no reason for us to bug each other. I mean, really—what am I going to do, steal her math textbooks? Hide her pipettes?

But now we’d have one major thing in common. Something that I never had to share with her: school. A whole year’s worth—starting today.

“Then there’s music appreciation. After that, you’ll both go to Art IIB, then you’ll go to choir and the TLC room.” She glanced at my mother apologetically. “We scheduled the music classes close together, so we thought TLC would be the best place for Desdemona to wait until you can pick her up at lunchtime.” Mom had two morning classes this fall, and Dezzie was too young to walk home on her own.

“TLC? What’s that?” Dezzie asked. It was the first time she’d said anything since we’d left the house, and her pipsqueak-y voice snapped me out of my wishing-hoping-praying.

TLC was The Learning Center, a place where kids went to get extra help on their work.

“Well, she doesn’t need any extra help,” my mother said. I had to agree with her.

“We thought Desdemona could use the library and read during that period,” said Mrs. Pearl.

I wanted to shake my head, or snort, or roll my eyes at the thought of my super-smart sister in our junior high library. She’d probably read half the books in there already. She’d kill the other half in a week.

“I could do my calculus homework,” Dezzie suggested.

“Lovely idea!” chirped Mrs. Pearl. My mother beamed.

Where was that serious (but not life-threatening) illness when you needed it?

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From the Publisher
"An excellent choice for middle school readers." -School Library Journal

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