“What I knew wasn’t mine. That’s the thing about being undercover: You know what you know, and you cannot act on it.”
Elisa Cantor is used to blending into the background. At home she is always in the shadow of her glamorous mother and sister, watching and wandering like her father. At school she is self-conscious and keen to stay invisible.
After all, it’s so much easier to observe things when no one is looking at you. In the woods Elisa is able to observe nature, like her father, as an undercover operative. At school, she can use everything she sees and finds to secretly write love notes for the boys in her school like a modern day Cyrano De Bergerac.
Elisa thinks she is fine with all of that; with being undercover. But when Theo Moses starts asking for notes to win over Lila–a pretty, popular girl who is always ready to remind Elisa that she is neither–Elisa isn’t sure she wants to stay in the shadows anymore.
As she hones her voice writing poems for herself–not pretending to be anyone else–and learns more about Theo, Elisa begins to wonder if there could be more to her life. With her father away on an extended trip and her family crumbling under the weight of his absence, Elisa really needs for there to be something more. When Elisa discovers a hidden pond and a talent for ice skating, she realizes it might be time for her to stop hiding in Undercover (2007) by Beth Kephart.
Undercover is a marvelous novel, partly a retelling of the play Cyrano De Bergerac and partly something entirely unique.
Elisa is a narrator who sees the world not just as it is but also through her own lens, always with a sense of whimsy and wonder. Readers are easily drawn into Elisa’s appreciation for poetry when she discovers new writers and forms and begins to write poems of her own (included throughout the narrative and also in bonus material at the end of the paperback edition).
Kephart uses poetry and prose to tell a layered story about love in all of its forms whether for family, friends, nature or even for words. Elisa’s journey as she learns to love and respect herself is also beautifully told. Undercover is a slim book that has a lot to say about honesty, family and learning who you want to be. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld