Shakespeare’s plays provide a unique opportunity for artistic exploration and expression for young people. No other material offers the wealth of powerful, beautiful, playful, and expressive language that Shakespeare does. When young people encounter Shakespeare as actors, they experience it in the most engaging, compelling, and personally meaningful way. They meet characters that inspire them. They tell stories that capture their imaginations. And they learn language that helps them make sense of and articulate their own thoughts and feelings, thereby improving their ability to communicate in constructive ways.
Performing material as complex as Shakespeare challenges students to keep their commitments, solve problems, and work in collaboration. Accomplishing such a difficult and meaningful task gives young people an experience of themselves as successful and important.
I salute the other writers who have attempted the challenge of adapting Shakespeare for young readers. We’ve all succeeded and failed in our different ways, but one common factor unites us – William Shakespeare is the real star of the show.
Top 10 Shakespeare books for children
1. Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb
This classic retelling has remained in print since 1807. The tales are true to the originals, and include much of Shakespeare’s dialogue. However, the Lambs edited out anything they thought unsuitable for impressionable young minds. In their version of Twelfth Night, for instance, there is no mention of Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch, or Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Modern readers might find the style a little dry and long-winded, but this is the book that set the standard for all Shakespeare adaptors.
2. Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield
This book first appeared in 1985, and contains twelve of Shakespeare’s plays. The retellings are almost re-imaginings of the plays as miniature novels. Garfield’s style is, as always, brisk, lively, and wonderfully inventive, and the book is an excellent read in its own right. Michael Foreman’s dark and brooding illustrations are masterly.
3. Stories from Shakespeare by Geraldine McCaughrean
This is probably better for advanced or older readers, since the vocabulary can be demanding, but the book offers marvels of compression. McCaughrean manages to fit all the major characters – and a lot of the minor ones too – and incidents into a limited space. Her style is precise, but not dry, with imaginative flourishes that satisfy and illuminate. With nicely judged use of short extracts from the plays, this selection is one of the best available.
4. The Children’s Shakespeare by E Nesbit
These are competent, readable retellings. Though most of her writing is more than a century old, Nesbit still has the power to grip and enchant the reader. The stories tend towards the wordy, and heavily stress description and motivation, but they are nonetheless true to the spirit and atmosphere of the originals.
5. The Usborne Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare
This book has retellings by Rosie Dickins, Leslie Sims, Conrad Mason, and Louie Stowell, and is illustrated by Christa Unzer, and Serena Riglietti. The plays tackled are Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet. A sumptuous publication, illustrated in full colour on every page, with pictures of the characters set at the beginning of each story. The prose is accessible, and the stories race along.
6. Hodder’s The Shakespeare Collection
This is the work of various authors, including Anthony Masters, Jan Dean, Rebecca Lisle, Claire Bevan, Chris Powling, Tony Morris, and Ross Collins.
This series offers vivid retellings, illustrated in colour, and black and white. The illustrations vary to match the mood of the tales. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, has cartoon-like pictures, while the art work in The Tempest is more realistic. The language is direct and simple, without any sense of ‘writing down’ to the reader. The plays come in single volumes, which are paperback-sized, and reassuringly slender. An excellent introduction to Shakespeare for younger readers.
7. Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare Today
Contributors to the series include Tony Bradman, Jenny Oldfield, Robert Swindells, Sue Purkiss, Franzesca G. Ewart, and Michael Cox.
These are novel-length retellings intended for the teenage market. They adhere to the plots of the plays, and avoid Elizabethan English, though key lines from Shakespeare are skillfully woven into the narrative. Since these are longer than most of the other adaptations, characters are more rounded, and develop convincingly. The eye-grabbing covers are designed to appeal to the target audience, and suggest that Shakespeare’s plays are not as fusty and boring as many people think.
8. Shakespeare Can Be Fun series by Lois Burdett
Plays available are Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Lois Burdett is a Canadian who runs Shakespeare workshops for young children. The stories of the plays are told in rhyming couplets, and are illustrated with pictures and quotations from children who have participated in the workshops. These retellings are very child-friendly, and are an excellent source of ideas and approaches for both teachers and pupils. A useful and charming addition to the Shakespeare canon.
9. Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays by Marcia Williams
This is an ingenious and delightful book. The plays are presented as a comic strip, with characters speaking lines taken directly from Shakespeare, and a simplified account of the plot running in a band under each strip. Around the edges of each page, we see characters from the audience in the Globe Theatre commenting on the action, as they would have done in real life. The seven plays on offer are Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and The Tempest.
10. King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
This is not a retelling of the plays, but a novel that includes Shakespeare as a main character. Nat Field, a young American, travels to London to play Puck in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. He contracts a fever, and wakes up to find himself in Elizabethan times, and about to play Puck in the premiere of the play. The time-shift element is convincingly handled, and the reason behind it provides an elegant plot twist at the end of the book. Cooper’s Shakespeare is warm, human, and sympathetic. I would recommend the novel to teenagers, or advanced readers.