Michelle Ray’s reading students at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring can now read a book by an author named Michelle Ray. Earlier this month, a young adult imprint of Little, Brown published “Falling For Hamlet,” Ray’s modern retelling on Shakespeare’s classic, told from Ophelia’s perspective. In Ray’s prose, Ophelia doesn’t die.
Family Circle magazine said this about the book: “The updated Hamlet, as seen through the eyes of his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ophelia, is a troubled texting teen with parent and paparazzi issues. To read or not to read — most definitely not the question.”
I caught up with Ray earlier today. In honor of teens everywhere, we connected via instant message. We chatted about her book, about the state of Maryland teens, and about growing up around the Beltway. I hope you comment below on your perspective of Maryland teens and answer some of the questions I posed.
Me: So tell me: How did you come to write this book?
Michelle: I saw HAMLET at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, and loved it. It was modern and incredible. But I didn’t like the Ophelia’s place in a modern production. I didn’t know why she would kill herself and go crazy over a guy. As a modern woman, it just didn’t resonate. On my way to the subway, I thought, “What would make her kill herself?” Then I thought, “What if she didn’t?” That’s how it started.
Me: Fascinating. And what do you think your spin on the story now — what appeal do do you think that has with young adults?
Michelle: The original story of love and the desire for revenge are eternal, but I hope what I’ve added brings more to the story. I think a lot about fame and how it affects teens in the spotlight, how technology helps and hurts relationships, and how teens are caught between their desire to grow up and their need for their parents’ guidance.
Me: Have any of your students read the book yet and what’s been their reaction?
Michelle: They have, and the ones who have read it really like it. They say it’s exciting and fun and romantic.The fact that I”m a published author and their teacher excites them, too. One girl even took a picture of a stranger reading my book and sent it to me. Great fun.
Me: LOL. That is awesome. Here’s a big question: What is the state of young adults in Maryland? Are they happy? What do they worry about?
Michelle: They are facing incredible pressures — parents losing jobs, poverty or having too much (yes, that’s an issue), getting into the “right” programs and schools, hoping to learn to read better — and you would think this would make them bitter. But most of them travel through life with a smile on their faces, ready to learn, wanting to be good friends. Their resilience and determination amazes me.
Me: Do you think it’s harder for teens to grow up around here given the proximity to power and all the fascinating careers parents around here tend to have?
Michelle: I think every area has its pluses and minuses. I grew up in (Los Angeles), which is a movie industry town and it had the added pressure of beauty and going into “the business.” Here in DC, I think kids see the variety of incredible opportunities to do good -- whether it be as a senator or as a lawyer in the department of justice or a news cameraman. I think they see that they can make changes for the good, and for a teen, I think that’s a very hopeful thought. Teens want to know they can make the future a better, more just place.
Me: You have a marvelous perspective on what it’s like to grow up. What’s the most important thing you think a teacher can do for a student?
Michelle: Open their minds. I want them to know that the books we read and the history we learn is not the means to an end, and that it’s not all that exists. A cliche is that we teachers want to create “lifelong learners,” and it is true. Give them the tools they need to find what interests them. Give them confidence. Make sure they know there is more than one perspective, and more than one right answer to many questions. And that the pain in the teen years isn’t forever. When you leave school, a lot of what’s the most important stuff (grades, clothes, being cool) just doesn’t matter anymore.