“Much Ado About Baseball,” by Rajani LaRocca, opens with the line, “Baseball is magic,” and is narrated in alternating chapters by frenemies Trish, who pitches, and Ben, who used to pitch but now plays first base. In addition to the wonders of the game, readers will encounter magical delights like fairy dust, a Fountain of Youth, Books of Power and mildly poisonous snacks. In other words, it’s a story with plenty to offer those less keen on baseball.
Trish, whose family is Indian American, is new in town, and anxious to make friends who share her dual loves of baseball and math. Ben, who presents as white, is playing baseball for the first time since a traumatic game two years earlier, followed by the death of his Grandma Beth, who had been his inspiration as a ballplayer.
Ben too is a “math kid,” and he and Trish are both recipients of a mysterious gift: a book of math puzzles. The books are blank except for a single puzzle; when that one is solved, another appears. The presence of math puzzles in a book about baseball, by far the stat-happiest sport, seems perfectly organic.
Trish and Ben work their way through the magical puzzles, the baseball season and some unmagical difficulties with their parents. Trish’s mother is the chief of cardiology at Boston General Hospital and never finds time to attend the games, while Ben’s dad is a coach who’s so enthusiastic that Ben feels pressure to perform. Trish also struggles with a secret that could change how her friends and loved ones feel about her.
The book’s title, of course, points to a Shakespearean connection, picking up the thread from LaRocca’s companion novel, “Midsummer’s Mayhem.” Three strangers appear periodically: Rob, Luna and Mr. O — enigmatic figures who may or may not be having an effect on the games. Shakespeare buffs will recognize Robin Goodfellow, Moth and Oberon, continuing their machinations from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with a little plot help from “Much Ado About Nothing.” While these classic Elizabethan comedies provide layers of expectation and resonance for adults, young readers not acquainted with Shakespeare may be puzzled by the magical characters.
But the books we read as children are more than entertainment of the moment. They lodge in a privileged place in our memories, which is why many of us can recall our favorite childhood stories and poems a half-century later. Kids who enjoy “Much Ado About Baseball” may experience the inverse of the adult response: When encountering Shakespeare later in life, they may feel a pang of recognition. (I’ve read this somewhere before.) To book lovers, that feeling is as welcome as a chance meeting with an old friend.
The plague of first-person narration that has filtered down over the decades from adult and young adult literature to middle grade novels, including these two titles, often results in tween protagonists whose self-awareness strains credulity. Kids do have complex thoughts and profound emotions, and writers understandably want to portray them as having more smarts than many grown-ups acknowledge. But there is a difference between feeling something and being able to articulate it, and the pitfall is creating protagonists who are as eloquent about their motivations as adults who’ve had years of therapy.