Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's a Happy Birthday

You may have heard the news: the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, celebrates his 450th birthday today.  That's definitely a birthday to mark, and I've also got a personal reason for celebrating, for today is the sixtieth anniversary of my own birth.

I've always loved sharing a birthday with the Bard, and over the years I've particularly enjoyed some fun festivities at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Each year, they sponsor a day-long "birthday" event with Shakespeare-themed activities for both kids and adults; the celebration culminates with everyone singing "Happy Birthday" as an actress playing Queen Elizabeth cuts a giant birthday cake.

My love for Shakespeare's work goes back to my childhood. When I was eight or so, someone gave me one of the most important books in my life, Stories From Shakespeare by Marchette Chute.

In this volume, Chute transforms Shakespeare's plays into brief, well-written tales that I spent hours reading as a child. It was the perfect introduction to the work of the Bard, and I still use it to refresh my memory about the story essentials before going to see a Shakespeare play. With Chute's storyline fresh in my mind, I can better focus on Shakespeare's marvelous language.

In college, as an English major, I took a year-long course in Shakespeare. We read everything he wrote, immersing ourselves in the villainy of Richard II and the verbal sparks between Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. It was that year that I happened upon another Shakespeare resource that remains a treasured possession: "Shakespeare" by Mark Van Doren. Here, Van Doren gives readers a collection of incisive essays -- one about each play. I never go to see a Shakespeare play without re-reading what Van Doren has to say about it.

Over the years, I've read many other books about the Bard, both for kids and adults. In the eight years I've been a children's librarian, for example, I've learned that Chute's book is less well-known that the classic Tales From Shakespeare, and subsequent volumes, written by Charles and Mary Lamb. (Chute's book, however, remains a sentimental favorite with me).

Young readers in my library also enjoy the comic-book-style synopses of Shakespeare's plays -- Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare and More Tales From Shakespeare -- written and illustrated for younger readers by Marcia Williams.

 Then there are artist Gareth Hinds' beautifully-illustrated versions of classic Shakespeare stories: King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and his newest, Romeo and Juliet. (I'm especially lucky that Hinds lives in my city, and has come to speak at our library about his work).
Yes, today is definitely a day to celebrate Shakespeare! But it's also a day to celebrate birthdays in general. Let me conclude this blog post by higlighting one of my all-time favorite birthday books for kids, Benny Bakes a Cake, written and illustrated by Eve Rice.

It's a book I discovered as a parent, and one which my now-grown kids really loved. So it brings back beloved memories, as I remember how my kids gasped when the family dog eats the birthday cake which Benny and his mom have just made for Benny's birthday. And how we all sighed with relief when Benny's dad arrives home shortly afterwards bearing a substitute birthday cake, thanks to an urgent telephone call from Benny's mom.

 Now, I use the book as a children's librarian for our "Twosies" program when our theme is "birthdays." Like my kids did, the young participants revel in how Benny helps make his birthday cake and then are saddened by Benny's tears when the dog eats the cake. Finally, there are big smiles at the happy ending, a perfect conclusion for book about birthdays.

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