The Hamlet Chronicles by Gregory Maguire

Right in time for All Hallow’s Read, I semi-accidentally came across this series. Read it. Get your kids to read it. Read the books to your dog, if you wish. But don’t miss these middle-grade, humourous, slightly creepy novels.

Maguire - Spiders Spinning

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d heard the fourth book, Four Stupid Cupids, recommended as a story that might interest fourth-grade readers who liked funny stories and wanted help finding books that weren’t too easy. The UBC library just happened to have the series, excepting Five Alien Elves. In short, I devoured them.

   Maguire - Haunted Hairdos

The series is concerned with the (mis)adventures of Miss Earth’s students, who live in the village of Hamlet, Vermont, USA. Most of Miss Earth’s class is divided into one of two clubs: the girls belong to the Tattletales, led by Empress Thekla, while Chief Sammy leads the all-boys Copycats. Pearl Hotchkiss is the only freethinker, or so she calls herself: Pearl chooses to abstain from either club, and gets along with both Copycats and Tattletales, generally speaking. Naturally, both clubs are rivals, much to Miss Earth’s dismay, and constantly compete and pull pranks on each other. Or the Tattletales do; the Copycats don’t scheme quite so much. Each book focuses on a slightly different set of students, adding depth to their characterization. Four Stupid Cupids, for instance, devotes time to Fawn Petros and her family. Fawn is the “dumb” student of Miss Earth’s class, constantly and thoughtlessly derided for her stupidity. Fawn and her mother miss her father, who is away in Antarctica for research.

“What is this, the United Nations’ kiddie division?” said Thud. (Three Rotten Eggs p. 15)

Unusually for a small-town story, the characters are fairly multicultural, as a short distance away a college and a computer lab employ a large number of workers, some of whom have moved to Hamlet from overseas for precisely that reason. The children are divided only by their rivalries. They are united by their affection for their teacher, Miss Earth.

Maguire - Alien Elves

Miss Earth is a kind, no-nonsense, encouraging, sometimes stern woman, and above all, she is a teacher. She loves her students and they love her right back, which doesn’t stop them from causing trouble, or her from making them behave. Miss Earth is a die-hard fan of the (fictional) country-and-western singer Petunia Whiner, and each book is peppered throughout with Miss Earth’s adaptations of Petunia Whiner’s so-dreadful-they’re-funny lyrics. Here’s one:

Blizzards snow, tornadoes blow,

Ingrown toenails come and go.

Troubles grow, but even so,

Girl, here’s what you gotta know:

Stick with your man!

(Six Haunted Hairdos p. 15; Miss Earth’s version ends “Stick with your kids!”)

Each book is prefaced with Maguire’s irreverent version of a famous poem. His treatments of the characters, including the beloved Miss Earth, is also irreverent, amusing, and gentle. The children learn lessons, but the tales are the opposite of didactic; the morals and slowly emerging maturity of the children are presented as naturally as growing up. The books contain a number of allusions and references to other works of literature: for example, the kindergarten teacher is named Ms. Frazzle (think of The Magic School Bus‘s Ms. Frizzle).

Maguire - Stupid Cupids

Did I mention that the stories are funny? Utterly impossible creatures storm into their lives (at least, I sure hope that the Siberian snow spiders are utterly impossible), and the children manage, sometimes with bloodcurdlingly close escapes. (Spiders. Urg. Seven Spiders Spinning was particularly shudder-worthy.) The foibles, mistakes, and flaws of both children and adults are evident to the reader, yet the characters are treated kindly and with empathy. With a few exceptions, of course – Maguire does not hesitate to skewer the absurd *coughtvhostscough* I enjoyed the relationships between Miss Earth’s class and their local adults, who are neither feared nor revered, and often appear as allies, albeit with a slightly different take on events.

Maguire - Rotten Eggs

Serious situations and comical ones unfold side by side. The last book in the series, One Final Firecracker (did you notice that the series begins with “seven” in the title, and works its way down to “one”?), gives care to the topic of change, as the school year ends (the series occurs over the course of one year) and our protagonists graduate from elementary to middle school. This is unusual in children’s books, and I appreciated the attention given to the children’s (and adults’!) uncertainty and slight melancholy, as well as to their hopes and plans.

Fans of Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School series will devour The Hamlet Chronicles. Highly recommended.

Maguire - April Fools

 One final quote. As a student of children’s literature, I can’t resist posting this one here. Thank you, Gregory Maguire!

For the past few summers Miss Earth had enrolled in teacher refresher courses. Math fairs, science rallies, geography jamborees. Her favourite was a week-long literature conference, a kind of boot camp for admirers of children’s books. There she met other teachers and librarians, and they all went back to being like kids reading for the first time. They read new books, and toasted or trashed them. The colleagues read old favourites, and loved them anew or wondered why they now seemed so stale and stuffy. In any case, the best part of the summer conference was enjoying companionships among professional, vanquishing the sense of being the last adult reader on the planet. (One Final Firecracker p. 64)

Maguire - Final Firecracker

 

 

2 responses to “The Hamlet Chronicles by Gregory Maguire

  1. OMG! A BOOK CALLED SIX HAUNTED HAIRDOS EXISTS! AND IT IS BY “GREG” AS JUDI WOULD SAY! Janet, you are like a treasure hunter, unearthing all these fascinating works! <3

  2. It’s weird to think of Gregory Maguire as a children’s writer, but this sounds very much in the same vein as Wayside Stories that I’m betting I’d love it (and that it’d be a good fit for the kids I nanny!)

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