On the Page — “Road to London” by Barbara Mitchelhill
February 4, 2014
Author: Barbara Mitchelhill
Publisher: London: Andersen Press, 2012
Genre: (Upper) Middle Grade Fiction, Early YA
Audience Age: 10-14
Themes/Topics: Theatre in Shakespeare’s time; life in Shakespeare’s time; adventure
Opening Sentences: One summer’s day when I was thirteen, something amazing happened. For months I had dreamed of a new life far away from Stratford. An actor’s life. An exciting life filled with fame and fortune. And that afternoon, that summer’s day, was when it all began.
Synopsis: As you can see from that brief excerpt, this book is told in first person, which always seems to thrust the reader right into the middle of the action. And in this book, there is a great deal of action.
The book is set in the England of Shakespeare’s day, and, indeed, William Shakespeare is a major character in the book. But the focus of the book is on young Thomas, who tells the story, who lives the story.
After enduring torment at the hands of his classmates and teacher once too often, and after an encounter with his hero, the great playwright William Shakespeare himself, Thomas runs away from his home and school in Stratford and heads for London where he hopes to join Shakespeare’s troupe of actors.
He does join them, but only after encountering more difficulties than most present-day thirteen-year-olds would ever be willing to face. He also encounters a girl of about his age, Alice, who has her own set of adventures leading to her discovery of a treasonous plot – which puts her life in danger.
Thomas urges Alice to disguise herself as a boy and join Shakespeare’s troupe (for girls were not allowed to act on stage at that time). She does, but this causes its own set of problems.
At the climax of the book, Thomas and Alice get their opportunity to warn of the treason to come – or be imprisoned themselves.
Although the reader must always keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, and these things didn’t happen in the way they are portrayed in the book, it is obvious that the author did a great deal of research, to show us accurately and vividly what life was like in that time.
Throughout the book, we learn things without realizing we are learning. We are reading a fascinating adventure, and along the way we learn that although Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed having plays performed for her, it was illegal for actors to perform within the gates of the City of London.
Shakespeare’s troupe had to travel around England, or perform outside the city gates. Not only do we find out a lot about the theatre of Shakespeare’s day, we learn about medical practices of the time, about the makeup of the time, and many other things. It is quite eye-opening to read what conditions people lived in back then.
If you’re interested in theatre, and adventure, this would be a great book for you.
For Further Enrichment: The author, Barbara Mitchelhill, has a website that has a trailer for this book, interesting diary entries about the research she did for the book, for example, what boys and girls wore in those times, and information and writing exercises for kids who want to be writers.
Although the Globe Theatre begun by William Shakespeare and his Players is no longer standing, there is a replica — a fully operational theatre — in London, England. It’s called Shakespeare’s Globe, and there are plays produced just as they would have been back when Shakespeare was alive, with the audience standing in a big arena-like space to watch the play.
There’s an area on their website for young kids, with games and activities, and for older kids, there’s a discovery space that lets you learn all kinds of things about the Shakespeare’s theatre. There is a virtual tour, and if you’re lucky enough to be in London, you can go on a real tour of the theatre!
Out in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace (and, in this book, Thomas’s home town) the Royal Shakespeare Company performs Shakespeare’s plays regularly, and also has a great program for kids.
And on the Folger Shakespeare Library website, there is a section for kids where you can learn about life in those times, about the theatre, about the way the English language was spoken back then, and lots more.
Availability: Readily available in paperback