Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Undercover by Beth Kephart: review & interview


Have you ever read a novel that felt like coming home? Undercover by Beth Kephart is set in Pennsylvania, but with the turning leaves, wild animals and pond skating, it could have been Maine.


My favorite place to skate is on our friend’s island in Harpswell. A stonewall separates the freshwater pond from the sea.


I’ve rested on the wall with my face turned to the sun, listening to the crash of waves and marveling at how my children zip confidently across the bumpy pond ice.


We all have our unsteady moments, but there are none in Beth’s first young adult novel. Undercover is literary fiction for discerning teenagers:

“… the sky was poked to bits with the nakedness of trees. The color of the day was the color of a storm that had chosen not to come.”


The story unfolds slowly with sensitivity and grace. Elisa is a lonely, unattractive girl with a knack for beautiful metaphors. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, she crafts love poems for the boys to woo the pretty girls at her school. Elisa collects feathers and images in the woods, capturing them in verse like fallen leaves under ice. She teaches herself to figure skate on a secluded pond.


Complications arise when Elisa is attracted to her latest client. Theo is in her honors English class, where they are reading the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. Theo secretly befriends Elisa as they skate under the stars. His jealous girlfriend vows revenge. Shy Elisa must find the self-confidence to fight back:

“… the greatest tragedy of all is letting invisibility win. It’s choosing to give up the thing you want because you think you don’t deserve it.”

My only criticism was that I didn’t understand how an unusual girl like Elisa would fall for a conventional boy like Theo. Still, I could relate to her desire for love and for friendship. I was sad to reach the final page and found myself longing for the woods where foxes dance in the moonlight.

I loved how the themes of Cyrano de Bergerac echoed in Undercover. I’ve tried to do something similar with my young adult novel, as u like it, and Shakespeare’s play. This writer seems to share my sensibility, which is another reason I felt at home in the narrative. I connected with Beth through Cynthia Pittmann@Oasis Writing Link’s post that mentioned our writing for teens. Thank you, Cynthia!

Beth has two other young adult novels: The House of Dance and Nothing but Ghosts. Her fourth YA novel, The Heart is not a Size, is set in a border city of Mexico and will be released on March 30th, 2010. You can read more about Beth's books on her blog (my review is featured today.)

My Interview of Beth Kephart
author photo by Mike Matthews

Sarah: Who are your favorite young adult authors?

Beth: My very favorite young adult book is The Book Thief, which is original and deeply moving and artful and all that I look for in any kind of book. I’m also a huge believer in books that cut across categories, and time, so that I want every young adult out there to read, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird, though I’m not sure it was labeled YA upon its release, as well as Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, which was published as an adult novel but certainly, certainly features younger protagonists and important issues and graceful writing. I also love, and would love every teen and parent to read, Marilyn Nelson’s Carver—a book of poems that tell the story of botanist and educator George Washington Carver.

Sarah: As a poet, non-fiction and memoir author, what made you decide to write a young adult novel?

Beth: I was actually asked to write YA by Laura Geringer, who was first at Harper and is now working with Egmont, who had read some of my nonfiction and who knew that I had taught young writers for years. I had also chaired the National Book Awards’ Young People’s Literature Jury in 2001 and made my thoughts about what YA might be quite clear.

Sarah: How autobiographical was Undercover?

Beth: Undercover is emotionally true, and, in many ways, factually resonant. I went to Radnor High School, as Elisa does. I was a young poet who benefited from the encouragement of an English teacher. I was often asked by the popular guys for advice about winning over the girls they actually loved, and sometimes I was bruised by that, but didn’t show it. I also learned to ice skate on a pond in Boston, and ultimately I excelled at the type of competition in which Elisa skates at the end. My mother was a seamstress, and my final competition dress was very much like the one I describe in the book. Finally, I run a consulting business; my first business was called Point of View, which is the name of the firm I created for Elisa’s dad.

 Beth Kephart at age seventeen, family photo

Sarah: What elements are key in writing for teenagers as opposed to writing for an adult audience?

Beth: The story has to move more quickly. The scenes, in some ways, must be more intense. The characters must be immersed in situations that matter enormously to teens. That said, the teens I know and interact with on my blog are hugely intelligent, their vocabularies sometimes outpace mine, and they tend to embrace books of linguistic or thematic complexity. I write my heart out when I write for teens. I don’t keep anything off the page.

Sarah: What’s the best writing advice you have received?

Beth: My degree from Penn is in the History and Sociology of Science, and I didn’t take any writing courses as an undergrad. I went to three writing workshops later in life, one conducted in Spoleto by Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons, one in Prague with Jayne Anne Phillips, and one at Bread Loaf, again with Jayne Anne. I’ve been blessed to have some truly extraordinary editors—Alane Mason and Laura Geringer—and from them I’ve learned quite a bit. Through it all, one thing stands out: Give yourself and your stories room to breathe.

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@Barrie Summy

Publishing Industry Watch:

"Math of Publishing Meets the E-Book" (NYT, 3/1/10, business section) compared the costs of publishing books vs. e-books and showed how profit is shared among publishers, authors and booksellers.

"The Editorial Role: An Agent's View" (The Huffington Post 3/2/10) Jean Naggar (my agent) describes the changing role of agents as editors lack the time and support to edit manuscripts.

45 comments:

David Cranmer said...

Wonderful, insightful interview with marvelous photos, especially the author as a teen.

ewix said...

Such a super meld of photos and text.
Especially liked the one of detail of ice.
Beth Kephart sounds so wise. Even though I don't have teens in the house, I should read this book.
Did you see "An Education"?. An amazing movie, pitch perfect and super period detail.
England in the 60's.....hm.......

Beth Kephart said...

Gosh, Sarah — I am so very honored by the gorgeous treatment you have given Undercover—oh, those photographs. I want to go pond skating in Maine right this instant! With you and your daughter.

Thank you so very much. And what a lovely insight about Theo, too. To me he seemed conventional at first, but Elisa is able to see through the act he puts on to see the unconventional guy that he is. That's what I was hoping to convey, but I so love that you make me think about that harder.
Makes me wish that I could write my books over and over again?

Thank you so VERY much. This is exquisite and so thoughtful. I'll go cross post it now.

tina said...

Great parallel between the skating and starting out. Wonderful pictures!

Edith Hope said...

Dear Sarah, This is a remarkably insightful posting. First, you review 'Undercover' in such an appealing way, interspersing your comments with appropriately chosen pictures and tantalising quotations from the book. It sounds highly readable and I am sure will be, and most probably is already, enjoyed by countless adults as well as young people. It sounds to have that enduring quality one finds in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

Secondly, I was most interested to read your interview with Beth Kephart. I am ashamed to say that I did not know of her work until now. She sounds to be a most sympathetic person and I shall go immediately and look up her work.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow!! Amazing interview and review!! Thanks so much! :)

Rose said...

Sarah, you always manage to find the perfect photos to illustrate your reviews! These images of skating and the sea are beautiful. "Undercover" sounds like a book I would have loved as a young girl and one that would appeal to many girls I know today. I didn't write love poems for other boys, but the popular guys often came to me for help with their homework:) As for Elisa's attraction to someone like Theo, I have seen lots of odd couples in my teaching career; "nice girls," especially, seem to fall for the "bad boys."

Bee said...

Just that snippet of the book is enough to reveal Beth Kephart's poetry! It sounds like she cleverly ties in the Cyrano plotline; and btw, I love this trend in YA literature. It's the equivalent of "sampling" great songs in music. I want to buy this book for my daughters, but I want to read it as well.

Your pictures are so lyrical, too -- and fit the theme so well. I find the first picture particularly atmospheric and dreamy.

I agree with Rose about Elisa's attraction to Theo. I was thinking along similar lines. Have you been watching Glee? Two whip-smart, driven girls are attracted to the popular (but rather dopey) boy.

Melissa Sarno said...

Wonderful interview. I like the way your use photos throughout. Thanks for sharing.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

A wonderful book review with beautiful pictures. The leave print into the ice gave me chills!

I saw the play of Cyrano de Bergerac a few years back and the meaning of the play has stayed with me. I agree with Bee--I would like to buy this book for my daughter, but I would like to read the book too, :)

Best
Tracy :)

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Lovely interview, as usual. And perfectly timed, as I was wondering what book to pick up for a young girl's birthday later in the week!

It's funny she mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. That novel speaks clearly to me of the places I know well. I know the ladies Lee speaks of... the talcum powdered ones that look like soft teacakes in the heat.

Ellen Booraem said...

As usual, the complete package! I just love the match-up of review and interview, Sarah.

And I do adore contemporary books that pick up themes from "classic" literature. Cyrano's is such a compelling situation, fits perfectly in a YA setting. Can't wait to read this book!

lakeviewer said...

I just love the sensitive way you introduce books and authors. If I ever get published, I'd want that treatment. Delicate and profound.

Mandy said...

Great interview and I love the accompanying photographs! UNDERCOVER is one of my favorite books and it's wonderful to see it so lovingly reviewed.

Donna said...

Like Beth, I went to Penn too! I always am interested in the work of fellow alumni. Unlike her, I did take writing courses as an undergrad, even though I wasn't an English major. I think it's become a requirement for all undergrads.

I like how you tied in your photos to the book. Your book reviews are always informative and creative. They are definitely the best book reviews I read anywhere.

Laurie Schneider said...

This makes me want to grab my copy of Undercover and reread it. And skate on that pond. Gorgeous.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, thank you. My favorite part of MG/YA reviews is getting a glimpse of the author at the age of her/his character. I know how much I dig into my childhood memories while writing for teens.

Ewix, I believe this timeless novel would appeal to adults too. It has handwritten love notes and journals instead of text messages and computers. There is an old fashioned sensibility to the narrative as well. Grown ups would appreciate the quality of the writing, although the story itself is definitely geared for young teens. I missed seeing An Education during the short time it played in our town. I shall rent it on your recommendation – thank you!

Beth, it’s so nice to hear your reaction to the post, and thanks for the link. Your lovely book was inspiring. Do come and skate with us, but not now – the pond ice is breaking it up! There was more to Theo in private, but I couldn’t get beyond the way he treated Elisa at school. Still, as others have noted below, smart girls don’t often make the best love choices. I can relate to your desire to revisit a published book. Before a submission, my agent has to check that she has the latest version. I could happily revise forever. I know the MS is ready when I can only make changes that make the narrative different but not better. Undercover feels complete as it is. No worries!

Tina, thanks for noticing! The skating-starting connection in my post echoes Undercover.

Edith, as I explained to ewix above, this novel has crossover appeal to adults. Also, the author started her career writing for adults. Beth is new to me too. I’d love to hear what you think of her work.

Keri, thanks, I enjoyed your review – you just added another book to my to read list.

Rose, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I often pick books that could illustrate my life. Everyone used to ask me for help on homework too, unfortunately not the cute guys. Theo isn’t a bad boy, just an ordinary boy, but that is a good point about good girls making bad love choices. I’m looking forward to reading your review too.

Bee, Beth is a poet too. I do love YA books with literary themes as you can see from my last 3 book review club choices (and from my own writing.) Let me know what you and your daughters think of Undercover. The first photo was my favorite too and totally captured the moment in real time and in literature. Yes, Rose and you make a good point about young love. I have heard good things about Glee and will definitely check it out thanks to your nudge. I rarely watch TV beyond the Daily Show. I’m looking forward to reading your book review too.

Melissa, welcome to my blog and thank you! I shall come visit your blog too.

Tracy, I’d love to hear what you and your daughter think of Undercover. I’ve never seen Cyrano performed, but I did enjoy the modern movie adaptation, Roxanne, with Steve Martin.

Pamela, I’m glad to help. Undercover will make a nice gift because the cover is as lovely as the story. I just realized that I forgot to post the book jacket image. I shall add it now. It’s a heart shaped leaf under ice and one of the prettiest YA covers ever. To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of my favorite books too.

Ellen, it’s extra work to add an interview to the review, but comments like yours make it worthwhile. The Cyrano link was what hooked me too. I’d love to hear what you think of it. I’m looking forward to reading your review too.

Lakeviewer, that is a fine compliment indeed. Thank you and best of luck with your writing.

Mandy, welcome to my blog, and thank you for adding your recommendation. It was a lovely book.

Donna, I remembered that you two shared the Penn connection even if your time didn’t overlap. I think writing requirements are a good idea at college, especially for non-English majors. You clearly are a skilled writer. Wow, thanks for your comment about my reviews! You just made my day if not my week.

Sarah Laurence said...

Laurie, your comment came in just as I was posting mine. Thank you and welcome to my blog! I enjoyed the reviews on your blog too.

All, I’ve just added 2 new items to this post:
1. Undercover’s beautiful cover
2. a link to ”The Editorial Role: An Agent’s View” by Jean Naggar (my agent) in yesterday’s Huffington Post.

It's a busy week for me: drivers ed for my son, dance performance and Science Olympiad for my daughter, and my husband's birthday. I'll catch up on your blogs as soon as I can, but it might have to wait until Sunday.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I agree with ewix--"such a super meld of photos and text." Sarah, this post feels delightfully layered. Great interview. I enjoyed Beth's memoir on friendship and was not aware of her YA books. Love the picture of her at 17. And she's so lucky to have worked with Rosellen Brown and Jayne Anne Phillips.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Lovely! This month you've reviewed a book that's right up my alley! ;). I will definitely be looking for this one! I greatly enjoyed the interview as well!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Wonderful post! Found you from Beth's blog (I'm a big fan of hers) and like others, I love how you included the photos throughout your review.

Angie Muresan said...

Perhaps Elisa did not realize how unusual and special she was, or perhaps she did and just craved to be like everyone else.
Wonderful interview, Sarah. I am looking forward to reading this book.

A Cuban In London said...

Not only did I enjoy the interview, but it also felt like a coming home to me because I used to visit Beth's blog quite often and she used to be a regular visitor on mine, too. I always liked her openness and it seems, judging by your review, that the book has the same quality. Many thanks for the brilliant photos and the exquisite text.

Greetings from London.

Barrie said...

What a beautiful review and interview. I truly enjoyed this post, Sarah. Beth's works sound wonderful. Your photos, as usual, were fantastic. Thank you

A Cuban In London said...

Sorry, I just had to come back. Your comment about your son being 1/8 Chilean cracked me up. That's what our modern polity is today. 1/2 of this, plus 1/4 of that, plus 2/3 of this other. Beautiful. Wish him luck in learning Spanish. By the way, since I didn't know that your husband had relatives in Chile I feel compelled to ask about their well-being. Were they affected by the recent earthquake at all?

Many thanks for your comment.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, thank you! Nice to have a recommendation of Beth’s memoir too.

Alyssa, I’d love to hear your reaction to Undercover. I enjoyed your review too.

Melissa, welcome to my blog and thank you! It’s nice to connect with you through Beth.

Angie, Elisa does seem aware that she is special (thanks to for her dad and a teacher.) She didn’t seem like a girl who would want to be like everyone else. She is lonely and feels a special connection with Theo. The question is whether Theo is worthy of her affection. I’d love to hear what you think once you’ve read it.

ACIL, so that’s why Beth’s name sounded so familiar to me. I hope you two reconnect through this post. I do like her blog very much too. Thanks for asking about our family in Chile. They live in Santiago so were unharmed; however there was damage to their farms in the earthquake zone.

Barrie, thank you for hosting another book review club especially since you were behind on a deadline. I appreciate your dedication to our group. Best of luck finishing your MS.

Elenka said...

Ice skating while looking and listening to the sea!
Holy Smokes.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elenka, it is a special place. I'm loving the warm sunshine today.

Delwyn said...

Hi Sarah

I find that frozen pond adjacent to the sea really interesting...we have ponds like that but with sea water and tidal that are used as swimming pools in some coastal towns. I have never ice skated but used to roller skate on clackety metal skates as a kid in NZ.

The quote you used to illustrate Beth Kephart's finesse is wonderful...

Happy days

Sarah Laurence said...

Delwyn, we have tidal pools in Maine, mixing warm river water with cold seawater. This island pond doesn’t mix with the sea. I had metal strap on roller skates as a kid in NYC, but I preferred skate boarding. Ice skating on a pond is even better. Yes, Beth has gift with words.

Cynthia said...

Hi Sarah, I just loved the interview and those pond photos are magical. I think I will have to read Undercover now...I wanted to read one of Beth's memoirs next. Thank you for the link and mention, too!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, the other Cynthia left a comment recommendation for one of Beth’s memoirs. Thanks so much for connecting Beth and me.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah

Your photos are like lyrical poetry!! I really love the first one; lonely skating at dusk!!
Since Beth Kephart is a poet, I suppose her new book must be full of poetical, inspirational and imaginary proses!! I like books written in lycial descriptions very much!! I'll read the book!! Thank you so much for introducing a good book to us!!

septembermom said...

Visiting from Beth's blog. Love all the photos and your captions. Insightful and inspiring. I really enjoyed the interview with Beth. I like how Beth writes "her heart out" for these young readers. Bravo to Beth for providing such literary treasures that will help ignite hopefully a lifelong love of words and imagery for her young readers.

Your review was terrific. I am glad that I had this opportunity to visit your lovely blog.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

What a beautiful place to skate! I've never skated outside, southern girl that I am. But one day, I'd love to try it.

Interesting links too. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Sapphire, thank you. That is my daughter skating at dusk, also below. Both Beth and her protagonist are poets. I’ll be interested in hearing your reaction to Undercover.

Septembermom, welcome to my blog and thank you! It’s so nice to connect with another fan of Beth’s work.

JAPRA, I can’t imagine a world without ice, especially at this time of year. I think you’d love skating outside. I keep my eye out for articles that show how the publishing world is changing.

Daniel Dragomirescu said...

Excellent, dear Sarah!
I invite you to contribute to a future issue of CHMagazine with some of your writings.
Best wishes,

Daniel D. Peaceman, writer and editor

Aron said...

Those ice skating photos looks so great. I can only imagine what it would be like to be able to skate there. Thanks for sharing!

Sarah Laurence said...

Daniel, thanks for the invitation and good luck with your new magazine.

Aron, welcome to my blog and thank you! It feels strange looking back at those skating photos on a warm day. Spring has come early to Maine. I’ll come visit your blog soon.

Staci said...

I loved this book and you captured the feeling that it invokes perfectly!! Beautiful guest Q&A too!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Staci, thank you and welcome to my blog! So nice to connect with another book lover.

Linda McLaughlin said...

A lovely review for what sounds like a deeply emotional book.

Sarah Laurence said...

Linda, it is both a lovely and emotional book.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, Barrie accidentally linked to my March book club post, although this one is definitely worth reading. Here's the link to my April book club review of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Mama Shujaa said...

Wow Sarah, fantastic review and interview!