Monday, March 01, 2010

On Love, Loss, Poetry, and Growing Up - Meet Kevin Boland

A few weeks ago I fell in love with Kevin Boland (known to his baseball-playing buddies as Shakespeare). How could I not love a boy who loves two of my favorite things--baseball and poetry? How could I not appreciate a boy who writes things like this?
Man, sonnets are hard: counting
syllables in every line, trolling
for rhymes (p.16).

I said I wouldn't write anymore,
but I take that back.

When I got sick, I missed baseball.
When I got well, I missed writing (p. 56).

I'm still trying to slip in some inside
rhyme, just a few things that chime
a little but don't go bong, bong, bong
at the end of every line (p. 61).

I've got this pitcher figured out: slider,
fastball, curve. Slider, fastball, curve.
Like meter in a bad poem--no surprises (p. 113).

(Excerpts from Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge. You can also read the first few pages.)
From the moment I opened Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Kevin Boland was in my head, and by the end of the book he was in my heart. I really wasn't prepared for the emotional punch of his story told through poems laced with humor, angst, love, loss and of course, baseball. What's a boy to do when he's told he's sick and can't play the sport he loves? His father, who is a writer, hands him a marble composition notebook and and says, "You're gonna have a lot of time on your/hands. Maybe you'll feel like writing/something down."

By the fourth poem in, Kevin has taken a book about poetry from the den and secreted it away to his room.
It feels weird smuggling something about
poetry up to my room like it's the new
Penthouse (p. 5).
As Kevin recovers from mono he writes about the death of his mother, girls, baseball, the past, and the struggles of a typical teenager. The poems take a variety of forms, including sonnet, couplet, free verse, elegy, pastoral, pantoum, and more.

Before I go any further, I need a time out for a confession. I'm not a fan of many so-called verse novels. I know, I know! I can already hear the arguments for them, and you can probably name more than a dozen that you love. (Little Willow posted a lengthy booklist of verse novels.) But for me (confession, remember?) some of them read like prose that's been broken up to LOOK like poetry. Don't get me wrong, they're often terrific stories, but sometimes they just don't FEEL like poetry.

I don't know if Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is or has been categorized as a verse novel, but it's exactly what I think a verse novel should be -- a carefully ordered collection of poems that tells a good, no scratch that, a great story.

All of this is a very lengthy prelude to my reflections on Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs, Koertge's sequel to Shakespeare Bats Cleanup. When I was invited to participate in the blog tour, the folks at Blue Slip Media were concerned that this book might not be my cup of tea because I focus on poetry for younger readers through middle grades. While it's true that I rarely review YA books, my concern was not so much about the audience, but the verse novel format. The verdict? I'm so glad I said yes.

My love affair with Kevin Boland continues as he struggles with his new girlfriend (who doesn't really know much about poetry), his new poetry gal pal (who totally gets his poetry obsession), his English class, his father's dating, the line between friendship and something more, and baseball. As with Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, I appreciate Kevin's take on writing, life and baseball. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts.
I love my thesaurus. I like
to think about all the words
in there, cuddling up together
or arguing. Montagues on
one side, Capulets on the other.
Synonyms and antonyms (p. 4).

He calls rhyme a benevolent bully because it'll make a poet
look hard for the right word and then maybe he finds
an even better one (p. 11)!

Sadness is a big dark bus
with a schedule all its own.
But when it pulls up and the door
opens with a hiss, you pretty much
have to get on (p.25).

The sestina is almost impossible. I tried one once
and after a couple of stanzas threw myself onto
the nearest chaise and wept. Copiously (p. 80).

(Please Note - These excerpts came from an uncorrected proof. The bound copy may differ from the ARC and what is presented here.)
When I closed this book I wanted to understand why I connected so fully with Kevin. What was it about him that drew me in and kept me in his corner? Honestly, I think it's because Kevin is the male version of my middle school self (save the dead mother) and in his poetry he admits to all the things I felt but never put in writing. Will teens feel the same way reading him? I sure hope so. Boys will connect to his everyman status because he is, after all, just a regular guy. Girls will enjoy getting inside his head (who doesn't want to know what boys are thinking?) and will appreciate that he's not afraid of facing his emotions, even if only on paper.

I'm embarrassed to admit the I knew Koertge only through his adult work, not what he's written for young adults. I HAVE BEEN MISSING OUT. If you haven't met Kevin Boland, you're missing out too. Don't waste another minute. Run to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Shakespeare Bats Cleanup. Then you'll only have to wait 8 more days until Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs is released.

All poems ©Ron Koertge. Used with permission of Candlewick Press.


  1. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup made my heart hurt - in a good way. I loved that book, and I'm beyond excited about the sequel! Thanks for the heads-up!!!

  2. Thanks for the links! I have yet to read his Bats, but have heard good things. :)

  3. I'm just finishing Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs, and am loving it. (I'm reviewing both books on Tuesday at GLW and have interviewed Ron as well.)

    I love the sestina quote and thought of using it myself (and still may), although I'd keep going with the bit about Percy Shelley.

    Such great books - a mix of free verse and forms, and (after the first few pages of the first book, when "Kevin" starts to focus) every poem a bona fide poem.

  4. Oh! Oh! Oh! I didn't know there was a sequel. I can't wait til it is out for the rest of it.

    Shakespeare was the kind of book I wished I could write.