Swim the Fly by Don Calame

Swim the FlyThis review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.

After reading Swim the Fly, it did not surprise me one bit to find out that author Don Calame is a long-time screenwriter.  This book is begging to be brought to the big screen as a slapstick teen-boy comedy.  It has it all – raunchy humor, ridiculous situations, bodily functions, naked girls.  It also comes as no surprise that before starting his screenwriting career, Mr. Calame spent four years as an elementary school teacher.  This is a man who understands what kids – and especially boys – like, and he delivers it in spades.

Every summer Matt and his two best buddies, Coop and Sean, set a goal for the summer.  Usually it’s something silly – skinny-dipping in Perry Lake, collecting a thousand golf balls, or getting their hands on a copy of Playboy.  This summer Coop has upped the ante.  This summer they are going to see a real live naked girl.  And somewhere along the line, Matt has set himself another impossible goal – he has to be able to swim the 100-yard butterfly in time for the championships.  The butterfly takes strength and speed – neither of which Matt possesses.  But swimming the fly might be his only chance to impress Kelly, a gorgeous new addition to the swim team.

The many plots that the boys use in their attempt to see a real live naked girl are predictable and hysterical.  All the pre-requisites are there – the girls’ locker room, the binoculars, the closet-hiding, and nude beach, the cross-dressing – but of course these plans do not end the way the boys expect them too, and many surprise the reader as well.  And Matt’s desperate tries to swim – or get out of swimming – the butterfly are equally side-splitting, mostly because of the addition of a trainer named Ulf.

The reason that this book works as something beyond a summer teenage romp is Matt.  He may not show it often, but the boy has some depth – an unexpected sweetness comes through more and more as the book progresses.  He even shows some (gasp!) respect for the women in his life.  Because of Matt, even a reader who doesn’t go in for fart jokes can enjoy this book.  And for the fart-jokes lover, this will be a classic.

Don Calame on the web.

Swim the Fly on the web.

And an extra: Bookends has posted some very funny pictures of Swim the Fly and their local swim team.

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Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta

mudvilleLike a lot of kids who have a strat-o-matic game hidden under the bed, Roy McGuire likes to analyze things with statistics.  They offer a tidy way to explain away some of life’s little anomalies.  Take the case of Walt Dropo, who had twelve hits in twelve plate appearances in 1952.  That’s a major league record.  You never, ever expect a batter to have twelve hits in twelve consecutive plate appearances.  But as Roy explains it,

The odds of that are like one in two million, but there’s been way more than two millions tries, if you think about all the baseball players and all the games they ever played in, so it had to happen eventually.  Dropo was just the guy who did it. (pg. 7)

So while it may surprise everyone else, it’s no surprise to Roy that it has rained in Moundville every single day for the last twenty-two years.  It’s just like Walt Dropo.  With all the cities in the world, and all the rainy days in history, someday there was bound to be a place where it rained every day for twenty-two straight years.  It just so happens that Moundville is that place.  It’s statistics.

Of course, very few things in life can really be explained away so easily.  And like in so many great books about baseball, a hint of magic lingers around the baseball game between Moundville and rival Sinister Bend that was rained out on the Fourth of July twenty-two years ago.  When the rain suddenly stops, twenty-two years later to the day, a reply of that legendary baseball game becomes inevitable.

Arriving home from baseball camp, Roy is surprised to find a strange boy in his home.  His name is Sturgis, and it turns out that he is Roy’s new foster brother.  And while they develop a bond as foster brothers, they are also forging a different bond – that of a pitcher and a catcher.  The two boys have a complicated relationship, that can swing quickly from companionship to antagonism – which is exactly what you might expect when two young teenage boys are suddenly thrown into a house together.  But things are complicated further as the boys untangle their histories, which are more intertwined than it first appears.

The trio of men who live in the McGuire household are a joy to read about.  Roy’s dad is a treat from his kitchen adventures – spam manicotti one night, green bean and water chestnut chili the next – to his can-do attitude.  He’s the kind of guy who starts a water-redistribution business when the rains start, and switches right over to landscaping when they stop again.  He is also a very sweet father, and you can see his influence in Roy’s steady leadership and dry sense of humor.  Sturgis is tougher to sum up.  He probably does it best himself, when the rain finally stops.  Roy urges Sturgis to join him outside in the sunshine:

‘Didn’t you say yourself that it would probably start up again?  What if it’s the only nice day for the next twenty-two years?’

‘There’s a short story like that by Ray Bradbury,’ he says.  ‘It takes place on a planet where the sun only comes out for a few hours every seven years.  One kid spends the whole day stuffed in a closet.’

‘And you want to be that kid?’

‘Yeah.  I always identified with that kid.’ (pg. 63)

Sturgis has had a tough life, and fitting in is not something that comes easily to him.  But while he is certainly moody and sometimes aggressive, he is also hard-working, thoughtful, and extremely talented.  While the plot of the book is built on some wonderful magic, the characters feel very real.

Initially when I found out that the nasty rival team was from a traditionally Sioux town, and that the town had the very big-bad-guys name of “Sinister Bend,” I was worried about the portrayal of Native American characters in the book.  But I’m pleased to say that those worries were unfounded – players on both sides of the rivalry were complex both in their character and in their relationships with each other.  No character is without his or her flaws – even Roy’s incredibly kind and optimistic dad makes his mistakes – but even the most supremely flawed characters in this book are sympathetically human.  And the relationship between the citizens of Moundville and Sinister Bend are woven together in much more complicated ways than Roy, or the reader, realizes.

Kurtis Scaletta’s blog.

Mudville on the web.

On This Special Day…

…We celebrate something beautiful that happens between two people. Who are standing sixty feet six inches apart.

Happy Pitchers and Catchers Report Day!

I may be in chilly New England today, but I can practically hear the smack of balls hitting gloves all across Florida and Arizona. Spring is coming, and baseball is coming with it. In celebration of the most deliciously anticipatory day of the year, here’s a rundown of a few great baseball books for kids and teens.

summerlandSummerland by Michael Chabon

This might be my favorite book.  A perfect mix of magic and myth, adventure and folktale.  Michael Chabon takes one reluctant Little League player and sends him on an adventure through the landscape of a unique American mythology that has baseball at its heart.  And my apologies for making it sound like some kind of academic treatise there – this is a rollicking good adventure story.  Ethan Feld, the least heroic kid and worst ballplayer in the history of Clam Island, is sent on a quest.  And if Ethan can’t become a hero, both on the diamond and off, the world will come to an end.  Chabon lays it on thick in this novel, and that absolutely works – this is a chance to sit back and watch a truly great storyteller spin a whopper of a yarn.

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My Most Excellent YearMy Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

One of the most warm-hearted books for teens published last year, My Most Excellent Year follows three friends, T.C., Augie, and Alejandra, through their freshmen year of high school in the Boston suburb of Brookline.  This is a novel of teens discovering and shaping their own identities, and baseball is central to T.C.’s identity.  My favorite thing about My Most Excellent Year is that these teens have agency.  They are taking things into their own hands – both in their owns lives and in the world around them.  A great choice for teens who like books told through letters, emails, and other documents – and for kids who don’t mind a little romance mixed in with their baseball.

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We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson

We all knew that Kadir Nelson had some serious chops when it came to art, and We Are the Ship is certainly no exception – in fact, I think it’s his most stunning children’s book art so far.  But it turns out that his research and writing are spot-on as well.  Some people are just more talented than the rest of us.  The story of the Negro Leagues is told here, with engaging biographical information and some of the truly great stories from that era.  Hand this to kids who love baseball and watch eyes get wide.  Parents too!

Catch, by Will Leitch

Catch

The Temples family is like royalty in tiny Mattoon, Illinois, and Tim Temples is no exception. A popular high-school athlete going into the summer after his senior year, Tim is on his way to college, and he is preparing to leave his comfortable life as a big man in a small town. Hanging over him are the failures of his older brother Doug, who used to be a hero to Tim. After losing out on his minor-league baseball contract and dropping out of college, Doug is now back in Mattoon, and his relationship with his family is strained. While Tim works a summer job at the local Lender’s bagel factory, he meets an acerbic older woman, Helena. She is unlike anyone Tim has ever known in Mattoon, and their confusing, exciting relationship challenges and matures Tim, helping him make his choice to move on.

While Catch sometimes feels formulaic, Leitch’s love for the small-town Midwest keeps the novel fresh. Tim’s complex inner life shines through in the narration and when he is with Helena, in a way that rarely comes out with his family or his jock friends. There were a few things I found distracting about the novel – occasional stilted dialogue, and the frequent sports references, especially all the shout-outs to my favorite baseball team’s fairly recent real-life games. The story is pervaded with a sense of place, and the Cardinals references help reinforce that very Midwestern feel. Despite some flaws, Tim and his coming-of-age story are surprisingly affecting by the end of the novel.