Review of the Day: Much Ado About Baseball by Rajani LaRocca
Writing for children is hard and that’s a fact. It’s why countless writers, every single year, rely on the tried and true method of literary tropes. It’s much easier to conjure up clever wordplay for young readers when you’ve a stable of tried and true characterizations to pull from. There’s the bully trope. The annoying little sibling trope. There’s the negligent parent trope and the wise grandparent. We see these kinds of things crop up again and again in our children’s literature, and that’s fine. A well-honed trope provides a kind of direct path for the reader to the plot. However, there is one type of character that can’t disappear soon enough for me: The genius math weirdo. You’ll see this person show up in a wide range of novels for kids. They’re often incapable of socializing. Their love of math is certainly frowned upon, if not outright abhorred. They may be a “genius” that needs to learn how to make a friend or two. And actual math? Don’t make me laugh. In such a book the character will make an off-handed reference or two to cosigns and that’ll be the end of it. It is truly rare to find a book like Much Ado About Baseball where math not only propels the plot forward, but also contains perfectly normal, sportsy characters for whom loving math is just one aspect of their personality. Add in baseball, Shakespeare, magic AND snacks and you’ve got yourself a unicorn of a book. Crazy thing is, Rajani LaRocca manages to make it all work.
To have one thing stressing you out is bad. For Trish, it’s perpetual. Sure, she won the Math Puzzler Championship last spring, but now Trish is harboring a terrible secret about that win. And yes, she gets to play baseball this season, not only is it the last time she’ll ever get to play, it’s a new team, and once again she’s the only girl. Add in her new teammate Ben (whom she beat in the Championship) that apparently hates her, and things aren’t easy at all. Yet two events start to turn things around. First, she receives a mysterious math book in the mail. Next, she gets friendly with the folks that work at her team’s sponsor, the Salt Shaker. But can Trish and Ben ever be friends or are they doomed to circle one another in a perpetual show of animosity?
An ode to math. Specifically, an ode to books for kids that contain math. In the book profession, a large percentage of the people drawn to literature have… let’s say a complicated relationship with mathematics. Maybe it was a bad teacher. Maybe the teaching methods were harsh. Whatever the case, they’ve bad associations with the subject. As such, children’s books have gone a very long time without so much as a smidgen of math inside them. I’ve already recounted some of the failures to work math into a fictional plot. The best way to look at it would be to think of it in the same way you’d think about songs in a musical. In a good musical, the singing advances the plot in some way. The same should go for math. For example, in this book Trish and Ben both receive mysterious books full of math problems and puzzles. Ben figures out pretty early on that if he solves the puzzles then it reflects positive outcomes in how he plays baseball. The explanation of how math applies to science and nature is also a clever way of drawing in the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh. Have I failed to mention that they’re in this book as well? That’s that “Shakespeare” element I alluded to earlier.
I’ve spent a lot of time lamenting how characters that love math in children’s books have a tendency to be treated by both their own author and fellow characters as freaks. Now, just to flip things around, let’s look at the other genre this book falls under: sports books. Specifically, baseball books. No shade on other sports, but from a narrative perspective, baseball is the one to beat. Novels love the rise and fall of the action, the potential for injury, and how everything on the field can turn on a dime if needs be. Now each year I serve on a book committee where a group of librarians attempt to determine some of the top children’s books of the year. I can usually get them to read almost every topic . . . except sports. That’s another reason why I got so excited about this book. Ms. LaRocca never appears to be phoning in her love of the sport. The baseball on these pages is as gripping as you would hope it would be, clearly because the author cares deeply about the subject at hand.
For the most part, I’ve few issues with the book as a whole. However, I did feel that parental reactions to children getting injured (Trish in one case and her friend Abhi in another) were eerily calm. I was reminded of last year’s Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen where a mom went into a hyper protective mode when her daughter got hit by the ball and told her kid to drop the game. At no point do the two parents of the injured kids even think to propose that their children stop playing. This is particularly strange since neither was a huge fan of the game to begin with. Still, as flaws go this was pretty minor.
Truth be told, Much Ado About Baseball is actually a companion novel to LaRocca’s previous book Midsummer’s Mayhem. As such, the question at hand is whether or not this book stands on its own. I’ve read both books, and yet I’m fairly certain that a familiarity with Midsummer is not necessary to understand and enjoy Much Ado. It’s so much fun, in fact, that naturally one wonders what a third novel in this series might reference. The Tempest? Whatever direction Ms. LaRocca’s takes her series, she’s bound to find eclectic combinations, interesting characters, and scintillating mixes of magic and methodology. After all, it’s worked for this book. And it’ll work again.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Interested not only in an interview with Ms. LaRocca but also a delicious recipe for Baked Sports Crisps? Go no further than here!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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