Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge (2003)
I know, I know, everybody but me read this book and the sequel a long time ago! But just in case you haven't, I'm here to tell you why you should. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup reminds me a little of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech in tone and style, which is a darn good thing. This novel in verse is about a 14-year-old baseball player who gets mono and is stuck at home for weeks. Normally blasé about his writer dad's work, Kevin is bored enough to tinker with poetry, even sneaking a book on the subject out of his father's office. He ends up keeping a poetry journal in which he experiments with form even as he experiments with thoughts about his life. When Kevin goes back to school and his first love, baseball, he keeps writing, chagrined but secretly pleased to find out that he's hooked on poetry. And there's also a girl he likes...
Check out this sample of Kevin's poetry. I forgot to tell you how funny his thoughts about poetry are, and how much the humor tells us about this kid!
Stylistically, the free verse in Koertge's book may seem simple, even too prosy. But there's a definite music to it, and it's the music of character and voice. Which is actually a pretty stunning accomplishment. Note, for example, how the line break after "I can't finish anything" and before "else" mirrors the content both beautifully and with comic effect. The rest of the line breaks in that stanza do something similar, leaving us with a clear and ironic picture of how frustrated this active boy is by his illness.
How Do You Do, Haiku
I thought I'd start small. I kind of
remember haiku from school last year.
I at least remember they're little.
But, man—I never saw so many frogs
in the moonlight. And leaves. Leaves
all over the place.
Weren't there any gardeners in ancient
Japan? Weren't there any cats and dogs?
Still, haiku look easy. Sort of. Five
syllables in the first line, seven
in the second, five in the third.
Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs.
Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs.
Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, leaves.
Very funny, Kevin.
At least I finished it. I can't finish anything
else, except my nap. Seventeen syllables
is just about right for somebody with my
reduced stamina. Perfect thing for an
Oh, man! Look at that: in valid. I never
saw that before.
Just a single space
in a word I thought I knew
made the difference.
And finally, Kevin's thoughts about haiku and the power of "just a single space," then rendered in a haiku (indented in the original), presents a deeper thought about the form than most poetry classes teach, yet without losing the narrator's young voice. The book would obviously be a great tool for teaching 6th-10th graders about poetry forms.
Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs is the sequel, also very good. If you, like me, are one of the few people who hasn't read these books, I suggest you hurry to the library or bookstore and remedy the situation!
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan (2005)
The year is 1919, and a girl named Rachel Sheridan is living with her missionary parents in British East Africa when the influenza epidemic sweeps the planet. Her parents work hard to save lives in their medical clinic, but both end up contracting the illness and dying. What will become of Rachel? Well, her neighbors, an arrogant British couple, have an idea. They had been planning to send their daughter to her wealthy grandfather in England to try to ensure that she inherits his estate when he dies—which, frankly, they believe will be soon. But Valerie Pritchard dies in the epidemic, too, and Rachel looks a lot like her... Soon Rachel is caught up in the Pritchards' deception, on her way to visit her "grandfather" and feeling very bad about the whole thing. But there is no one to care for her, and certainly no one to support her dream of keeping her parents' clinic open. So she bids farewell to her native friends and hopes for the best.
There's a bit of a Secret Garden feel to this story, but it still manages to capture a period in history, as well as what it would be like to suddenly have your entire life turned upside down. Rachel's clear first-person voice is matter-of-fact, yet poignant, as she wonders what to do in an untenable situation. Her love for Africa is a contrast to the Pritchards' dislike of the place, just as her love for the people her parents serve is a contrast to the Pritchards' racism and snobbery.
One of the nicest thing about the grandfather in England is that he is an avid bird watcher, and he enlists Rachel/Valerie to go out and watch birds on his behalf now that he is too ill to leave the house.
As you might guess, the Pritchards get their comeuppance and Rachel finds her own way, but this relatively simple story is such a nice little book that I really recommend it.
(If you like it, you might then look for Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea, which features an intrepid young orphan who falls in love with the Amazon region, in contrast to the attitude of her uptight British guardians.)
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (2010)
This one's more recent, published just a few months ago, and it's unabashedly a YA romance about a girl who goes to school in Paris and falls for a French boy. But I think you'll find, as I did, that it isn't just another fluffy romance: Anna and the French Kiss is a pretty good boarding school drama and has some solid character development as Étienne St. Clair falls for Anna but tries to pretend it isn't happening because of his loyalty to his longtime girlfriend.
What's enjoyable about this book is seeing how Anna deals with things like her homesickness and her awkwardness at not being able to speak French as well as the other students. (She doesn't order a real breakfast for a couple of weeks because she doesn't know how to ask for the dishes.) Author Perkins builds a nice little cast of characters who befriend Anna and deal with their own troubles. Of course, there's also a gorgeous mean girl with minions! But despite some predictable elements, Anna and her friends feel very real. At times you may find yourself thinking, "Why doesn't this boy just dump his girlfriend and date Anna officially?" Yet the interactions are melodramatic in a believable way, if you're a teenager or know anything about teens.
It helps that Perkins leavens her story with humor. For example, Anna worries about not being French-cool, about wearing the wrong clothes, especially white sneakers. But she gradually realizes that people are still just people in Paris, and she even learns to speak some French.
Subplots about Anna's best friend and her sort of boyfriend back home, as well as Étienne's troubles with his parents, further complicate the book and the growing relationship between the two main characters. We get to know her a lot better than we do him, but by the end of the book, he does seem like more than just a pretty face. Overall, a theme about growth and risk-taking suits the story's romance as well as its premise about immersion in a strange culture.
Pick this one up if you're in the mood for a little romance, not to mention a little France!
My thanks to the bloggers who have recommended these three books, along with so many other great reads. In a small way, this post is my tribute to them.
Aha! It's all coming back to me... I think I was inspired to read Anna and the French Kiss after visiting Random Musings of a Bibliophile. Thanks, Brandy! Here's her review.