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3.7 14
by Beth Kephart

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Like a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, Elisa ghostwrites love notes for the boys in her school. But when Elisa falls for Theo Moses, things change fast. Theo asks for verses to court the lovely Lila—a girl known for her beauty, her popularity, and a cutting ability to remind Elisa that she has none of these. At home, Elisa's father, the one person she feels


Like a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, Elisa ghostwrites love notes for the boys in her school. But when Elisa falls for Theo Moses, things change fast. Theo asks for verses to court the lovely Lila—a girl known for her beauty, her popularity, and a cutting ability to remind Elisa that she has none of these. At home, Elisa's father, the one person she feels understands her, has left on an extended business trip. As the days grow shorter, Elisa worries that the increasingly urgent letters she sends her father won't bring him home. Like the undercover agent she feels she has become, Elisa retreats to a pond in the woods, where her talent for ice-skating gives her the confidence to come out from under cover and take center stage. But when Lila becomes jealous of Theo's friendship with Elisa, her revenge nearly destroys Elisa's ice-skating dreams and her plan to reunite her family.

National Book Award nominee Beth Kephart's first young adult novel is a stunning debut.

Editorial Reviews

"Readers will fall easily into the compelling premise and Elisa’s memorable, graceful voice, and have no trouble recognizing the teen’s quiet courage as she leaves her comfortable isolation, claims her own talents, and embraces the people who matter most."
Booklist (starred review)
“Readers will fall easily into the compelling premise and Elisa’s memorable, graceful voice, and have no trouble recognizing the teen’s quiet courage as she leaves her comfortable isolation, claims her own talents, and embraces the people who matter most.”
Publishers Weekly

Kephart (A Slant of Sun) makes a smooth transition from adult nonfiction to YA fiction with this intelligent, multilayered love story. Instead of inheriting her mother's beauty like her older sister, highschool sophomore Elisa shares her father's wild hair and talent for observation ("Dad likes to say, about both of us, that we're undercover operatives who see the world better than the world sees us," says Elisa). At school, she ghostwrites poems and romantic metaphors for smitten boys to give to girls ("Dear Lori, Last night I left my window open and a firefly flew through. So much light and all I could think of was you. Love Matt"). Although she's lonely, all goes well enough until Elisa becomes attracted to Theo, who has drafted her to write love notes for a pretty but manipulative girl with a pronounced cruel streak. Elisa's poetic, unself-conscious descriptions of nature (especially what occurs at a pond, her favorite place for reflection) gracefully evoke her loneliness for her father, away on business (or is his absence prolonged by marital distress?); her frustrations with herself for always staying in the shadows; and her anger at Theo for going along with his girlfriend's mistreatment of her. Neatly balancing action and contemplation, Kephart offers a plethora of images, ideas about literature and even some well-known poems along with a plot that will speak to many teens. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature - Sharon Oliver
In this stunningly lyrical novel, Elisa is trapped in a world of her own making with a life that's not really her own. Elisa ghost writes love notes for the boys at school to give to their crushes, but refuses to participate in anything as mundane as love herself. Until she falls for classmate Theo, who asks her to write notes that will enable him to court the stunning Lila, who is everything Elisa is not and knows it. Elisa is also missing her father, who has left on an extended business trip. As her sadness creeps in and her parents' marriage begins to falter under the strain, Elisa takes refuge in nature, sending her father detailed letters describing the changing seasons. While on a hike, she stumbles across a long-forgotten pond, where she spends the winter teaching herself to ice skate, and where she bonds with fellow woods-walker Theo, who is surprised to find her skating alone. This book is full of teen cliches, including the nasty rich girl, the concerned teacher and the miraculous show-up-at-the-last-minute parent. And just in case the reader does not get the connection, Elisa's class is studying Cyrano de Bergerac. What not only saves this book but elevates it above others of its kind is the writing and beautiful language that seems to float you through the novel and imbues the main characters with a ring of believability. Reviewer: Sharon Oliver
KLIATT - Claire Rosser
I have reviewed novels in poetry format that don't necessarily sound like poetry; this is a prose novel dense with poetic language. Somehow that seems ironic to me. Kephart's narrator is Elisa, an awkward girl whose only social skill is in acting the part of Cyrano, dreaming up love notes for boys to use with their girlfriends. Her mother and sister are not like her. It's Elisa who is close to her dad, but when the father is estranged, quarrelling with their mother, Elisa and her sister are united in their fear that the family is destroyed. Elisa escapes into the woods that winter, learning to skate at a hidden pond where she sometimes meets Theo, a boy who appreciates her intelligence and sensitivity. A skating competition, an unusual one, seems to be the only way Elisa can persuade her father to come home, and her determination to be lovely at least this one time appeals to her mother and sister, who know how to help her emerge as a confident, graceful girl. An unusual story, told beautifully.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Library Bound Edition
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 1.05(d)
Age Range:
13 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Undercover - EPB

Chapter One

Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing. It was on the other side of the cul-de-sac, past the Gunns' place, through the trees, where the stream draws a wet line in spring. There was old snow on the ground that day, soft and slushy, and the trees were naked; I had my woolen mittens on. I was following the stream, and above and between the sound of the stream was the sound of birds, and also nested baby squirrels. The foxes, when I found them, were down by the catacombs, doing a slow-dance shuffle. Standing upright, I swear, palm to palm, with black socks on, red coats.

At school I didn't tell Margie about the fox dance, or David, or Karl. I didn't even tell Mr. Sheepals, in science, because it was what he'd call a non sequitur. My fox-dance story was an animal-kingdom story, and this was two years ago, second semester, eighth grade, when we were stuck on photosynthesis.

I have a sister, but she reads fashion magazines all day. My mother doesn't care for the woods. I kept my fox-dance story to myself, and I won't share it with others even now. It is my secret.

It's the other stuff I give away—the way I read the sky, the way I watch the sun, the forty-two flavors of breeze. It's everything people don't look for until it's too late, until they need a metaphor or simile to help promote their love. They don't have to come to me, but they almost always do. They know I've got it covered.

Dear Sandy, I'll write, pretending I'm Jon. I came to the track meet to see you run, and it was like watching the lead bird in a migrating V. You were something else. Again. Then I fold the paper and Islip in a feather from my Stash O' Nature box. The next day Jon will rewrite it all in his own way and sail the thing through the vents of Sandy's locker, and a week later, I'll see them—Sandy and Jon, so all-in-love together—going down the hall. He'll keep his eyes down, as conspirators do. "Hey," I'll say. "Hey," he'll mumble.

It's interesting to me, what others cannot see. For example: The precursors of leaves on trees, which can be seen only just in front of dusk, in March, when the setting sun turns the branches pink or some primary shade of green. Then there's the neon glow of the eyes on bees, and also the way a gerbera daisy starts out thinking it's yellow before it turns pink. Nature, you see, has a mind of her own. She's mysterious, and mystery is romantic.

Dear Lori, I write. Last night I left my window open and a firefly flew through. So much light and all I could think of was you. Love Matt.

Undercover - EPB. Copyright © by Beth Kephart. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Beth Kephart was nominated for a National Book Award for her memoir A Slant of Sun. Her first novel for teens, Undercover, received four starred reviews and was named a Best Book by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and Amazon.com. In 2005 Beth was awarded the Speakeasy Poetry Prize. She has also written Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter; Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoir; Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self; Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River; Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business; and House of Dance. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

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Undercover 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Having recently read NOTHING BUT GHOSTS, I was anxious to crack open another Beth Kephart novel. UNDERCOVER was her first novel, and I'm surprised I missed it. According to the cover, Kephart was a "National Book Award Nominee" and a well-deserved one, I'd say. Elisa has always viewed herself as more of her father's daughter. Her sister, Jilly, and her mother share a passion for make-up and fashion. They are always dressed in perfectly matched colors with every hair in place. Elisa, on the other hand, has perpetually wild hair and could care less about clothes and colors. Her passion lies in words and nature. The only person who understands Elisa is suddenly missing from her life. Her father shares her interest in words and literature, but his extended business trip is keeping him from home. At least that's the excuse Elisa imagines as she tries to keep him up-to-date with letters sent to distant San Francisco. As the days and weeks pass, it's becoming more obvious that his business travel may be a side-effect of trouble in her parents' marriage. Elisa has previously accepted her backseat in life. At home she watches her mother and sister parade, and at school she uses her talent for poetry to ghost-write inspirational love poems for her male classmates to use as they court girls that don't even know Elisa exists. All this has been satisfying enough until she met Theo. Theo gladly accepts Elisa's poem offerings because he's head-over-heels in love with Lila. Without Elisa's words, he knows he wouldn't have a chance. He shows his appreciation by developing a friendship with Elisa, but that friendship sparks something in her she never felt before. With her father absent and conflicting feelings about Theo filling her thoughts, Elisa seeks peace by grabbing a pair of her mother's old ice skates and escapes to the hidden ice of a secluded pond. The freedom she feels as she imagines beautiful music and teaches herself to skate helps her cope with the twisting emotions that have suddenly invaded her life. Readers will be immediately captivated by Kephart's smooth and lyrical prose. Her words and story flow as cleanly and easily as Elisa's skates on the pond. UNDERCOVER portrays Elisa's struggle to deal with insecurities and push herself to achieve what those around her know she is capable of achieving. Teens will easily relate to her desire to fit in both at home and at school, yet not compromise her own personal spirit and view.
MissPrint More than 1 year ago
"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
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SleepDreamWrite More than 1 year ago
Elisa secretly writes love poems for her classmates who give the poems to the girl they like. Then she meets Theo who likes a girl name Lila and later on Elisa realizes that she likes Theo. But Elisa has more to worry about where her dad's work has him travel a lot. What helps her deal with all of this is skating at a pond. Most of the story seemed more about Elisa trying to reunite her family and less on Theo. I mean there are moments with Theo and all but still. Liked the book and it got me interested in reading more about Cyrano. And if you haven't read Cyrano then well, there's spoilers in this book.
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Angelflowers More than 1 year ago
Although "Undercover" started out promising, its ending completely overshadows the beautiful language and unique points of view. All I will say is that the main character's life is full of many injustices, and only one is solved by the end of the book. The rest are left open-ended, and various supporting characters are never really punished for their cruel actions. The end just didn't bring about any feelings of closure and really ruined what could have been a very satisfying read.
Lorenzyanatti55 More than 1 year ago
Kephart writes like a poet. Very beautiful book, plus all the skating stuff is an added bonus. Some truly unforgettable scenes out on the ice. A nice love story. One of the best new YA books around for sure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
focusedBB More than 1 year ago
I am an adult yet I loved this book! Yes, it's written from a 10th grader's perspective but she's so smart and so not clingy to the boys! She is a good role model for our teen girls out there because she's smart but not perfect and is able to endure through difficulties. This book is clean, no cursing, no inappropriate sexual content. The writer is talented. The reading is smooth but challenging because poems are written throughout. I recommend it for teens and adults.