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shakespeare bats cleanup

16 November 2004

Ron Koertge's Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is a Young Adult verse novel about baseball. It's currently 81,568th on the amazon.com bestseller list, and I wouldn't have known about it except that I spotted a copy in a Fells Point junk shop in Baltimore last summer. But Koertge's book deserves more notoriety. It's a pleasant mix of genres with some nicely underplayed insights about baseball and writing, those glorious and interconnected pastimes.

Protagonist and narrator Kevin Boland is 14 and laid up with mono. His widowed dad makes the best of things. A stay-at-home writer, the elder Boland encourages his son to rest up and pass the time by trying to write.

Kevin writes about baseball at first. He'd been a star hitter and first baseman before the mono weakened him. But soon other topics creep into his writing: his nascent relationships with girls, and his love for his dead mother. These heady, emotional subjects spill across his pages until he pilfers a book from his dad's shelf: a poetry manual. Soon, Kevin is writing pantoums and sonnets about his emotions:

You know what kept me from leaking
all over the page? Sticking to the rules
about what rhymes with what and how
two lines from one stanza turn into
two lines in the next. (30)

When he recovers enough to start playing ball again, Kevin surprises himself by sticking with the poetry. He even starts writing on the bench during ball games. His teammates aren't thrilled with the idea of a poet on the pine, but a new girl in town named Mira Hidalgo thinks it's kind of cool. Poetry helps Kevin talk to Mira and helps him deal with the stress of meeting her demanding family.

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is most obviously a verse novel in the manner of Karen Hesse's Newbery medalist Out of the Dust (1997), though much lighter in tone (even considering Kevin's grief for his mother). But it's also a kind of object lesson in poetic form. Kevin writes verse throughout; even before he understands form, his jottings take a free-verse shape. But as he learns form, he labels and explains his experiments, so that the book turns into a how-to for both narrator and reader. Especially well-done is a sestina that gets about halfway through and gives up (50-51), like most such poems in real life.

Koertge's book deserves to rise from the remainder tables and have a long life in paperback. If you teach poetry writing to young people, you would be well-advised to try it by way of this well-turned sport story with strong male and female characters, and the ring of lived experience as refracted through verse.

Koertge, Ron. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2003.