Koertge, Ronald 1940-
KOERTGE, Ronald 1940-
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "kur-chee"; born April 22, 1940, in Olney, IL; son of William Henry (an owner of an ice cream store and school janitor) and Bulis Olive (a homemaker; maiden name, Fiscus) Koertge; married Bianca Richards (a counselor), November 4, 1992. Education: University of Illinois, B.A., 1962; University of Arizona, M.A., 1965.
ADDRESSES: Home—1115 Oxley St., South Pasadena, CA 91030. Office—Department of English, Pasadena City College, 1570 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91106. Agent—William Reiss, John Hawkins and Associates, 71 W. 23rd St., #1600, New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Pasadena City College, Pasadena, CA, professor of English, 1965–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Books of the Decade citation, Booklist, 1988, for The Arizona Kid; Young Adult Author of the Year, Detroit Library System, 1990; Young People's Literature Award, Friends of American Writers, c. 1990, for The Boy in the Moon; Fellowship in literature (poetry), National Endowment for the Arts, 1991; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, and Maine Student Book Award Master List citation, both 1992, both for Mariposa Blues; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, and American Library Association (ALA) notable book citation, both 1993, both for The Harmony Arms; Where the Kissing Never Stops, The Arizona Kid, The Boy in the Moon, The Harmony Arms, and Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright were all named ALA Best Books for Young Adults.
The Boogeyman (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1980.
100 Things to Write About (college textbook), Holt (New York, NY), 1990.
The Father-Poems, Sumac Press (Fremont, MI), 1973.
Meat: Cherry's Market-Diary, MAG Press, 1973.
The Hired Nose, MAG Press, 1974.
My Summer Vacation, Venice Poetry, 1975.
Sex Object, Country Press, 1975, revised edition, Little Caesar, 1979.
(With Charles Stetler and Gerald Locklin) Tarzan and Shane Meet the Toad, Haas, 1975.
Cheap Thrills, Wormwood Review (Stockton, CA), 1976.
Men under Fire, Duck Down (Fallon, NV), 1976.
12 Photographs of Yellowstone, Red Hill (Los Angeles, CA), 1976.
How to Live on Five Dollars a Week, etc., Venice Poetry, 1977.
The Jockey Poems, Maelstrom, 1980.
Diary Cows, Little Caesar, 1981.
Fresh Meat, Kenmore, 1981.
Life on the Edge of the Continent: Selected Poems of Ronald Koertge, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1982.
High School Dirty Poems, Red Wind Books (Los Angeles, CA), 1991.
Making Love to Roget's Wife: Poems New and Selected, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1997.
Geography of the Forehead, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 2000.
Contributor to anthologies, such as The Maverick Poets: An Anthology, edited by Steve Kowit, Gorilla Press, 1988.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Where the Kissing Never Stops, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.
The Arizona Kid, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1988.
The Boy in the Moon, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1990.
Mariposa Blues, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1991.
The Harmony Arms, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 1992.
Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Confess-O-Rama, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
The Heart of the City, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
The Brimstone Journals, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.
Stoner & Spaz, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.
Margaux with an X, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Boy Girl Boy, Harcourt Children's Books (Orlando, FL), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Author Ron Koertge has not forgotten what it feels like to be young. The heroes of his stories for young adults suffer anxieties over acne pimples or being too short. They ponder their futures and quarrel with eccentric or domineering parents. Most of all, they learn how to manage their sexual longings and their romantic impulses as they become seriously involved with girls they care about. While Koertge frequently uses humor to reveal a character, he never downplays the seriousness of these universal adolescent concerns. An essayist for the Dictionary of Literary Biography maintained that Koertge has made a name for himself with books that are "remarkable for the realism with which they present tough and not-so-tough teenage characters coming of age in a world of AIDS and widespread divorce, but often in a world in which tenderness and love are not absent."
Koertge was born in 1940, in Olney, Illinois. Both of his parents had grown up on working farms and were then employed at a large dairy farm. While Koertge was still a youngster, his parents moved to Collinsville, Illinois, and opened an ice cream business. It flourished until the town's first supermarket opened, and then—like so many other specialty stores—it could not keep up with the new competition. Koertge's father became a janitor in the public school system while his mother stayed at home. They were comfortable financially.
An only child, Koertge led an average life, enjoying sports and school. As a teenager he discovered he had a special talent for words. He could express himself well, and beyond that, he found himself open to the vast possibilities words offered as a means to communicate feelings. "I discovered I was more glib than most of my friends," he once commented, "but I also somehow sensed that my gift wouldn't be really valuable until I was older. Very early on, words seemed to have lives of their own. Still today, the way the words fit together and the way they lie on the music they generate is more interesting to me than the so-called arc of the story." In this way, Koertge was laying the groundwork for a career as a poet and novelist.
He also loved attention and had a flair for drama. Though not the class clown, he enjoyed saying and doing outrageous things. "I would say out loud things that other kids seemed reluctant to say," he once recalled. "I liked to shock people—to leave them lurching, not laughing." His sense of life's quirks was heightened by a serious bout of rheumatic fever when he was a young teen. The illness, which had the potential to debilitate him with a weakened heart for the rest of his life, or even kill him, left Koertge with a "sense of the insubstantiality of my body and made me alternately tentative and foolishly bold."
Koertge began writing in high school. "It was certainly something I was drawn to partly because it was something I could do," he remembered. His interest in the field led him to the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1962, and then on to the University of Arizona, where he received a master's degree in 1965. He began writing poetry during graduate school and soon became confident enough to seek publication for his work. "I didn't so much plan to be a writer," he said. "Mostly I wrote a lot. Then people started to call me a writer."
In 1965 Koertge took a position as a professor of English at Pasadena City College, where he still teaches today. He began publishing poems in maga-zines as early as 1970 and a few years after that released the first of many chapbooks of verse. In 1980 he published his only novel for adults, The Boogeyman. "But the two novels after that were pitiful. Embarrassing," Koertge revealed. "Then a friend suggested that I try young adults since I'm a chronic smart ass. I went to the library, read a couple, and figured I could do at least that well. Sure enough: the two failed grown-up novels became Where the Kissing Never Stops and The Arizona Kid."
Both of these humorous and touching coming-of-age stories ignited controversy for their frank and realistic depiction of sexual encounters and alternative lifestyles. "It might have been naive of me to think that straight talk about sex would be universally welcomed in the secret garden of children's books or that a gay character in a YA [young adult book] would be treated like any other character," Koertge admitted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "But I was simply looking for something interesting to write."
In Where the Kissing Never Stops seventeen-year-old Walker is plagued with problems—his cravings for junk food run unchecked, his girlfriend has left town, and, worst of all, his mother has taken a job as a stripper in a nearby burlesque parlor. At his lowest ebb he meets Rachel, a mall-loving, cosmopolitan girl. Different as they are, Walker and Rachel begin a romance and ultimately learn to trust one another. School Library Journal contributor Marjorie Lewis wrote, "Walker's attempts to keep his mother's occupation a secret and make his romance with Rachel a rich, fulfilling one are believable and engrossing." In The Arizona Kid sixteen-year-old Billy faces a summer of change and discovery as he experiences firsthand the colorful world of horseracing, falling in love, losing his virginity, and learning about the gay lifestyle of his Uncle Wes, with whom he is spending the summer in Tucson.
Koertge has continued his humorous tales featuring young male coming-of-age stories in his other novels. For example, in The Harmony Arms, Gabriel McKay moves temporarily with his divorced father to Los Angeles, where in the Harmony Arms apartment complex he becomes acquainted with a host of individuals with eccentric personalities, including his new friend Tess, an aspiring young filmmaker who carries a camcorder with her everywhere in order to document her life. "Koertge's brash, outrageous characters give new meaning to the word diversity," noted Horn Book critic Nancy Vasilakis, who added that Koertge "offers a lively defense of the West Coast's let-it-all-hang-out spirit in his funniest novel to date." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor John Lord offered a similar estimation of The Harmony Arms, asserting: "The strength of this book lies in its characters. They are well-drawn and believable."
In Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright Jesse tries to conceal his almost senile grandfather's lapses of memory to keep his mother from putting him into a nursing home. A reviewer writing for Publishers Weekly appreciated Koertge's "imaginative characterizations, wacky humor and crackling, authentically adolescent dialogue" in this story. More recently, in Confess-O-Rama, protagonist Tony meets up with an unusual circle of friends when he and his mother move to a new town after his fourth stepfather dies. Deborah Stevenson, writing for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, maintained that Koertge "blend[s] humor and genuine emotion in a way many YA authors essay but fail: Tony's quips and the outrageousness of the plot are genuinely funny but never superficial."
The Brimstone Journals is a novel told through a series of poems that establish fifteen distinct narrators. Each of these seniors at Branston (nicknamed "Brimstone" by the students) High School linger under the threat of a shooting spree by Boyd, an angry young man who follows the ideas of white supremacy and who is ignored by his alcoholic father. Racism contaminates the school, and individual problems dominate the thoughts of the various characters as some reach a crisis point of their own. Other characters include anorexic Kitty, who thinks if she gets thin enough, she can fly; Sheila believes she might be a lesbian because she wants more from her best friend than goodbye hugs; and Damon feels that his girlfriend should be willing to provide sex whenever he wants it. Meanwhile, Boyd assembles his list of targets, and the students wonder if they will be on it. Some think Boyd wants to be stopped, but the most important issue is whether anyone will tell the authorities before it is much too late. "The ending is too hopeful; too many problems are solved," noted Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman. However, Rochman also observed that Koertge "avoids simplistic therapy, and the dramatic monologues are spare, poetic, and immediate." School Library Journal contributor Sharon Korbeck commented, "Young adults will have no trouble relating to the language and banter of these teens."
In Stoner & Spaz an unlikely romance forms between a druggie girl and a boy with cerebral palsy. Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Bancroft is smart, witty, and keenly perceptive, but he also suffers from the effects of a serious neurological disease. Colleen Minou is a rough-hewn and abrasive young women, well-known throughout the school for her frequent drug use. A chance meeting between the two sets off a gradually developing relationship, much to the dismay of practically everyone, but especially to Benjamin's grandmother. Their relationship is sustained in its early days by a mutual love of movies and a penchant for morbid black humor, but as their connection grows, more salutary effects are evident. Benjamin gets a much-needed boost for his confidence and self-esteem, while Colleen becomes more mellow, with some occasional stretches of sobriety. Even the most negative of their many observers must conclude that the two are good for each other. "Thanks to Ben's razor-sharp perceptions and Koertge's sophisticated plotting, every character here seems fresh and interesting," stated a writer in Publishers Weekly. "This is vintage Koertge," commented Booklist contributor Frances Bradburn. "Funny, touching, and surprising, it is a hopeful yet realistic view of things as they are and as they could be."
Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is a novel told in verse. Fourteen-year-old Kevin Boland, who is sidelined from his baseball team by a case of mononucleosis, begins writing poems to help stave off the boredom. At first, his versification is just done for amusement, but as he explores the various poetic forms more deeply, he begins to write about issues that are important to him. He uses poetry as a means to mourn his recently deceased mother, to contemplate his love of baseball, and to consider the attractions of the numerous girls he knows. Even when he recovers from his mono and can hit the diamond again, as well as find a new girlfriend, he persists with his writing, confident in its power to let him see his life, his problems, and his pleasures in a more focused way. "This funny and poignant novel celebrates the power of writing to help young people make sense of their lives and unlock and confront their problems," remarked Edward Sullivan in the School Library Journal. "The poems are funny, touching, and always energetic, and they show both Kevin's growing love for poetry," noted Todd Morning in Booklist.
The title character of Margaux with an X is a beautiful, popular, stylish high-school student who seems to have it all. Bedecked in the latest fashions, often at the wheel of her red Mustang, and pursued by almost every available bachelor in town, Margaux is, at heart, bitterly unhappy. Her home life is a misery; her father is a professional gambler, and her emotionally stunted mother does little more than sit in front of the television. The quick-witted and highly intelligent Margaux does a good job of hiding her problems, but one day she meets Danny, a scruffy, oversized outcast who wins her over with his own keen intellect and old-fashioned politeness. The two form a strong friendship, cemented with the constant high-level banter and wordplay at which both excel. With Danny's help, Margaux takes her first steps toward independence from her stifling family situation and her social stereotyping imposed on her. Along the way, Danny faces his own secrets. "The dramatic situations and sympathetic characters' painful secrets will intrigue teens," commented Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg. Koertge's juxtaposition of two dissimilar teens from the two poles of high school social life "destroys all assumptions, giving readers a glimpse into the complexities of the hidden emotional struggles of teenagers," observed Leigh Ann Morlock in the School Library Journal.
Many critics have commented enthusiastically about Koertge's work. For example, Michael Cart declared in the School Library Journal that "Koertge is a brilliant writer who is emerging as one of America's finest authors for young adults." About writing for young adults, Koertge once explained, "I never think of myself as writing for children; I never think I know anything special about young people. I don't have children and am not much interested in them as such. But I like to write. And writing YA's is obviously what I'm up to at the moment. I'm as surprised as anyone else at the success I've had. Maybe more."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 105: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 137-142.
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Booklist, October 15, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 418; February 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, p. 1075; April 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of The Brimstone Journals, p. 1548; May 1, 2002, Frances Bradburn, review of Stoner & Spaz, p. 1521; April 1, 2003, Todd Morning, review of Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, p. 1405; September 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Margaux with an X, p. 233.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of Confess-O-Rama, p. 102
English Journal, December, 1993, Alleen Pace Nilsen, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 73.
Horn Book, July-August, 1990, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Boy in the Moon, p. 462; July-August, 1991, Margaret A. Bush, review of Mariposa Blues, p. 464; November-December, 1992, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 727; September-October, 1994, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, p. 600.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, interview with Ronald Koertge.
New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, Laurel Graeber, review of The Arizona Kid, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, May 13, 1988, Kimberly Olson Fakih and Diane Roback, review of The Arizona Kid, p. 278; April 13, 1990, Diane Roback, review of The Boy in the Moon, p. 67; May 10, 1991, review of Mariposa Blues, p. 284; September 14, 1992, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 126; April 18, 1994, review of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, p. 63; February 12, 2002, review of The Brimstone Journals, p. 213; April 12, 2002, review of Stoner & Spaz, p. 71.
School Library Journal, December, 1986, Marjorie Lewis, review of Where the Kissing Never Stops, p. 119; June-July, 1988, Marjorie Lewis, review of The Arizona Kid, p. 118; May, 1990, Marjorie Lewis, review of The Boy in the Moon, p. 122; May, 1991, Todd Morning, review of Mariposa Blues, p. 111; August, 1992, Alice Casey Smith, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 178; March, 1994, Michael Cart, review of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, p. 236: March, 2001, Sharon Korbeck, review of The Brimstone Journals, p. 270; May, 2003, Edward Sullivan, review of Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, p. 156; September, 2004, Leigh Ann Morlock, review of Margaux with an X, p. 209.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1992, John Lord, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 224; June, 1994, review of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, p. 86; December, 1996, review of Confess-O-Rama, p. 271.
Wilson Library Bulletin, April, 1989, Frances Bradburn, review of The Arizona Kid, p. 97; September, 1991, review of The Boy in the Moon, p. S4, and Frances Bradburn, review of Mariposa Blues, p. 106; March, 1993, Frances Bradbury, review of The Harmony Arms, p. 84.