This book crafts 4 short stories into a coming-of-age novel. The central character in each story is Asa, a cerebral boy with a quiet gift for understanding other people, and the novel traces his growth from a happy-go-lucky first grader to a sensitive, life-savvy 12-year-old. In each story, Asa's precocious wisdom enables him to develop new relationships and cope with new challenges.
In “Straight A's and an Empty House,” the triumph of Asa's flawless first grade report card is lost in the shadow of his parents' divorce. After a blink-and-miss-it move to North Carolina, Asa and his mother set up house with her high school sweetheart, Dave. Dave's quick temper makes him difficult to get along with. The sudden divorce and unpredictable stepfather teach Asa that life is full of twists and turns, and he steadies himself with an emerging sense of independence.
In “Not Blue,” a fourth-grade variety show occurs. Stand-alone Asa is paired with Joel, a boy whose mental abilities cannot quite keep pace with his good intentions and kind spirit. Joel graciously suggests that Asa assist him in the recitation of Eugene Field's “Little Boy Blue,” a poem Joel has laboriously memorized over the summer. But Asa finds “Little Boy Blue” to be embarrassingly overwrought, and convinces Joel to tackle a more challenging poem. Joel good-naturedly agrees, but Asa's selection—Tennyson's “The Highwayman”—simply won't stick in his brain. However, Joel's diligent desire to please others fills Asa with a desire to please Joel in turn. For the first time in his life, Asa learns that the difference between being smart and being a smart friend is a matter of the heart.
By the age of 11, Asa has moved seven times. In “Out,” baseball embodies the escalating tension between Asa and his stepfather, ultimately forcing Asa's mother to realize that Dave has become abusive. Asa's mother falls into depression following this realization; Dave and Asa rush her to the hospital when she overdoses on sleeping pills, subsequently causing to Asa miss spring baseball tryouts. In order to protect his mother from Dave's anger and blame, Asa nonchalantly shrugs off the missed audition.
Asa's mother returns home in time for the final (and title) story, “What Hearts?” Here, 12-year-old Asa falls in love for the first time. The day after Asa declares his feelings for Jean is the day that Asa's mother finds the courage to leave Dave. Jean seems to return Asa's affection—but only until she learns that Asa will be moving away. Although Jean's love was short-lived, Asa is comforted by the sheer act of having been loveable, and bravely looks to the future with hope that being loved once will ensure being loved again.
This report prepared by Tracie Amirante