Wednesday is library day for my son’s second-grade class. Each child chooses two books from the school’s collection and keeps them for a week. There’s no particular pattern or theme to the titles Gus brings home; often he’ll pair a typical I-can-read-it paperback—a tale of adorable woodland creatures in human clothing learning important lessons about sharing, say—with a pithy science/nature tome, especially if the latter features cool photos of arachnid mouth parts and dining practices. (Note to publishers: you can’t have too many bright yellow cover bursts that say things like “3-D SpittleVision Pix Inside!”)
Last week’s literary combo was memorable. When bedtime rolled around, out of the backpack came, first, one of the many adventures of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and then Hamlet. Not Green Eggs and Hamlet or Hamlet Hears a Who or Polonius Is Phoniest or any such kid-adapted thing, but good old brooding, waffling, skull-contemplating Hamlet. The cover illustration showed him awash in moonlight and indecision, but there was an implied promise of flashing swords, which is always tough for a seven-year-old to resist.
We started with the Clifford story, which happened to be in French, because Gus is enrolled in the St. Paul Public Schools’ très bon French immersion program. In Gallic translations, Clifford’s name gets changed to Bertrand (similarly, when you read Scooby-Doo books in French, Shaggy becomes Sammy and Velma becomes Véra—c’est un mystère avec which one must deal, mon ami), but he’s still a bright red hound the size of a semitrailer, and he still exists to teach us how we can all get along. We blasted through Bertrand le Grand Chien Rouge, noted and promptly forgot the moral of the story, and then it was on to the swashbuckling exploits of the melancholy Dane.
Zut, alors—quel disappointment. It wasn’t a dumbed-down, cuted-up kid version, but it wasn’t Hamlet, either. Or rather, it was Hamlet by way of the CNN news crawl, with all the Shakespeare sucked out and just the plot left behind. “Ophelia was upset…. Hamlet told her to become a nun…. Ophelia drowned herself.” These aren’t exact quotes, but they’re close. You don’t get “To be or not to be”; instead, you get something along the lines of “Hamlet wonders if he should take his own life.” Gus grew tired of trying to remember who was who and fell asleep about the time Hamlet was going after Polonius through the arras. There’s no swordplay or intrigue or poetry; there’s only stabbing and poisoning and a Joe Friday just-the-facts monotone. Not that a second-grader wants straight Shakespeare, but a hint of it—a hawk or a handsaw here and there—would have been nice.
Which brings me, by my own odd logic, to the 2006 Tamarack Award. This year marks the 20th anniversary of our $10,000 fiction competition. We’ll begin accepting entries March 1, and we’ll publish the winning story in our November issue. Visit our website for rules and entry guidelines. Then send us stories in which the poetry trumps the body count, stories bigger and redder than any kid-lit pooch, stories that keep us reading long into the night.