Review: Julius Caesar for Kids, edited by Brendan P. Kelso

OK, so you all know my educational background (or if you don’t, Reader’s Digest version: I taught high school English, Shakespeare, and Drama [among other things]) for 10 years a long time ago; plus, my wife still teaches elementary school). You know I love a good educational resource.

Well, a few months back, I found a kindred spirit on Twitter (honestly, I don’t remember who started following whom first… not that it matters), @shakespeare4kid, the moniker for Brendan P. Kelso, who has written a number of “Shakespeare for Kids” books (collections of play-lets) as well as other literature classics for his site, PlayingwithPlays.com. And when I checked out the site, I found that he has a book on our current (at that point, upcoming) play under discussion, Julius Caesar. So I asked him for one.

Brendan delivered. Just got the book a few days back.

Playing with Plays presents Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for Kids (edited by Brendan P. Kelso)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for Kids (thanks to its editor Brendan P. Kelso providing a review copy!)

And he delivers, too. As in, the book is what it claims to be: a “delightfully funny rendition of Shakespeare’s full-length play… easy for kids to understand.”

Wait. Julius Caesar, funny?

Yep. Let me tell you a story: when I was teaching Shakespeare at Oxnard High School back in the late 80’s, as a part of trying to sell tickets to our inaugural ‘A Night with the Bard’ presentation of student-directed and -acted scenes, we were given an opportunity to perform at a school assembly. We wanted to show off what we could do, but how? None of the scenes was ready for prime-time yet, but we had just finished reading Romeo and Juliet. We obviously couldn’t do the whole play in the assembly, so we cut it down to a five-minute R&J. Most of the school (save for the freshmen who would read it later in the school year) had read the play. Needless to say, stripping down “two hours’ traffic of our stage” to five minutes meant six deaths, two swordfights, some romantic sighing and mucho teen angst… in not a lot of time. The audience laughed, and we had fun. Was it great theater? Hell, no. But it did make Shakespeare fun for over 2000 students.

I’m pretty sure that’s the objective of Kelso’s plays, as well.

And if so, then he succeeds.

While we did it all in the Shakespearean verse, Kelso rewrites much of the dialogue, but leaving in the most famous phrases of the play. Smart move. When the kids who perform this read the actual play later, they will hit those phrases like so many happy literary landmines. Plus, they’re great signposts for any adults who watch the performances.

Kelso provides three different versions of the play, for three different student group sizes, 5-9+ actors, 8-12+ actors, and 12-17+ actors. Depending on the version and the actual number of students, some may play multiple roles. The two larger versions of the play incorporate a narrator (who becomes–comically–more trouble than he’s worth), which works out well.

The characters take on a modern, current attitude. Caesar is urbane. Brutus none too bright. Cassius dastardly. Simplifications? Sure, but fun ones. Fun, too, is the dialogue–modern, but not so current as to become dated in the next few years.

As the characters are simplified, so, too, is the play and its narrative structure. He follows the plot of the original, excising much, but leaving in enough bones so that everyone knows the story by the time the play is done. My only criticism would be about the addition–to the version of the play meant for the largest group of students–of an unnecessary post-assassination scene between Portia and Lucius. There’s no such scene in the play, and if Willy Shakes didn’t need it, neither do the kids. But that addition aside, these are very solid, plot-wise.

I could see this being very successful in classrooms from third grade on to seventh… though it might be a nice little post-real-text palate cleanser for tenth graders still being subjected to the play, too. (don’t get me wrong: I like this play… but it can be a tough slog for many tenth graders–and their teachers)

So if you’ve got young, but not too young, kids (or students) and you want to do a fun intro to Julius Caesar, check these out… I think you’ll like what you see.

Thanks again to Brendan for the review copy. That review copy–autographed, no less–will become a prize in a contest I’ll be announcing this weekend… so stay tuned!

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