SPORTS FICTION TO ENGAGE READERS Many reluctant readers are engaged by sports fiction, primarily because they have the background knowledge and, therefore, can read at a higher level. A reader who plays or even watches football will have more understanding of the plays in a novel, such as Play Like a Girl, than I who most likely reads at a “higher” level but knows nothing about the sport and the relationship among players of that sport. In many cases, the book does not need to focus on a particular sport as there are carry-overs between and among sports, which could lead to book clubs each reading a novel that about a different sport. Any well-written novels use sports predominantly as the background or setting for the plot and will illustrate how setting can affect plot, a more sophisticated literary concept. For readers who are not interested in sports, sports fiction with the emphasis on character and plot, may introduce or initiate an interest in following sports in the news which frequently is more about the characters and a “plot,” than the sport itself.
The novels pictured: Title IX: Fall Down Seven Times—Stand Up Eight Basketball: Taking Up Space; Boost; Basketball (or Something Like It); Jump Ball (verse); Above the Rim; The Crossover (graphic); The Crossover (verse); Rebound (verse); Hoops; Slam Football:Gym Candy; Pop; Before the Ever After (verse); Operation Do-Over; Dairy Queen; Off-Season; What about Will (verse); Stick; Play Like a Girl (graphic) Soccer:Furia; Booked (verse); Booked (graphic); Braced Track:Ghost; Patina; Sunny; Lu (4-book series); Not If I See You First Tennis:Golden Girl (verse) Baseball/Softball: Shakespeare, Bats, Cleanup (verse); Becoming Joe DiMaggio (verse); Stealing Home; Fast Pitch; Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen; Coming Up Short; Hidden Truths Wrestling: Takedown Gymnastics: Chirp Boxing: Becoming Muhammad Ali (verse-prose) Swimming:Unsettled (verse); Up for Air; Whale Talk; Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes: Swim Team (graphic) Rollerskating: Tillie, Heart and Soul; Rollergirl (graphic) Bowling: In Your Shoes Fencing: Black Brother, Black Brother Table Tennis: Call Me Adnan I have read, and recommend, all the novels/memoirs pictured but I am posting reviews of 27 read and, in many cases, published more recently.
SPORTS NOVELS BOOK REVIEWS TITLE IX: Fall Down Seven Times-Stand Up Eight by Jen F. Bryant "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”—Title IX, 1972
In this picture book biography for all ages, readers learn about Patsy Takemoto Mink, a Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii adhering to the old Japanese saying, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” a maxim she would follow through many lifetime challenges.
Patsy grew up during the Great Depression and WWII and was elected the first female student president of her high school class. In college she became involved in changing her school segregated housing policy. When she was rejected from medical school on the basis of her sex, she realized “unless the laws changed, women would never be equal” and enrolled in law school. She and her husband moved back to Hawaii, and Mink became the first Japanese American woman elected to the Hawaiian legislature and continued to work for civil rights. In 1965 she became the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress.
On behalf of women rejected from schools because of their gender, she cosponsored a bill called Title IX to give “equal opportunity to males and females as students and teachers. And as athletes.”
This newest hero and role model joins William Carlos Williams, Peter Mark Roget, Georgia O’Keefe, Horace Pippin, Elgin Baylor, Louis Braille, and August Wilson in Bryant’s picture books written to span elementary, middle, and high school readers and could be effectively combined in thematic book clubs, learning about people whom many of our students may be unfamiliar, but “People Who Made a Difference.”
BASKETBALL: Taking Up Space by Alyson Gerber Middle school, especially seventh grade, is challenging: first crushes, jealousy, mean girls, dances, invitations or no invitations, and puberty. Bodies are changing, and young adolescents are beginning to fit in their bodies differently. It is a stage where most preteens believe that their parents are knowledgeable about things. But what if your parents aren’t? What if parents can afford to feed you, but forget to feed you?
Sarah loves playing basketball and being on a team with her two BFFs. In fact, Sarah is one of the best players on the team—until her body starts changing and she is slower and now is worried she will be kicked off the team. Sarah loses her confidence and becomes obsessed with only eating what she interprets from health class and her mother is “good” food. Bananas have too much sugar and starch. Even one snack is too much. But as Sarah and her crush Benny enter a cooking contest together, and she finds that she likes to cook and that her one best friend who also likes Benny now no longer wants to be friends. Suddenly Sarah feels she is taking up too much space since many of the girls are mean to her and her mother can’t be bothered to shop and cook for her.
Sarah begins controlling her food in order to control her life. “For lunch I have an apple and half a turkey sandwich again which gives me this feeling I can do anything. I’m in charge of what happens to me. It’s weird how eating less makes me feel so much stronger.” (70) Soon it takes over her life. “’…I’m hungry and tired of counting and worrying but I don’t know how to stop.” (117)
After Sarah collapses on the court, her coach and the school counselor become involved and Sarah finds out why her mother rarely food shops or cooks and is hiding candy all over the house. And it is an answer that has nothing to do with her love of Sarah.
Eating disorders and positive self-image are critical topics for young adolescents, and this newest MG novel by Alyson Gerber, an #ownvoices author (and reviewed by an ED survivor) will generate small group conversations that may be sensitive but need to be held.
Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys exhibit unhealthy weight control behaviors. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders are more common among females than males with as many as 10 million girls and women afflicted. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia primarily affect people in their teens and twenties, making the majority of adolescent athletes vulnerable. 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys report trying to lose weight. 58.6% of girls and 28.2% of boys are actively dieting; even among clearly non-overweight girls, over one-third report dieting. Talking Up Space belongs in every middle school library to be read in ELA or health classes or with a counseling group, independently or in book clubs with other ED novels or books about adolescent challenges and resilience or books about basketball.
Basketball (or Something Like It) by Nora Raleigh Baskin According to a 2017 CNN report, in response to a Facebook post by Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, where Auriemma said that recruiting "enthusiastic kids is harder than it's ever been," plenty of people spoke about how parents are causing a lot of the problems in the game. "Parents living vicariously through their kids, pushing them too hard, too soon. Too many games, too much pressure and not enough fun," one commenter on Facebook said.
Basketball (or Something Like It) is about basketball, parents, coaches, pressure to play, pressure to not play, but most of all it is about friendship. The novel focuses on 4 sixth graders:
Hank wishes his parents would “stop talking about basketball or baseball or whatever season and whatever sport they felt Hank should be getting more playing time in, playing a better position” (p. 2);
Nathan wants to play basketball even though his parents do not want him to play because of what basketball did to his uncle and even though he is not the good player everyone assumes, being black, is would be;
Jeremy is the new kid who came to live with his grandmother after being abandoned at his father’s his latest ex-girlfriend’s. Jeremy is used to street basketball, poverty, and making plans to leave; and
Anabel is not a basketball player. Actually, Anabel is quite a good basketball player, practicing with, and being dragged to, games with her brother. In her family “Basketball came before everything” (p.11)—at least for her brother and father.
These young adolescents become part of a world where adults determine if they play, when they play, and how they play until they bond and take their fates into their own hands. The final act of heroism isn’t a feat of basketball prowess but an act of friendship. This is a engaging book for reluctant male and female readers and sports enthusiasts.
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball by Jen F. Bryant In one smooth move, like a plane taking off, He leaped… Higher and higher and higher-- As if pulled by some invisible wire, And just when it seemed he’d have to come down, No! He’d HANG there, suspended, floating like a bird or a cloud, Changing direction, shifting the ball to the other side, Twisting in midair, slashing, crashing, Gliding past the defense, up—up—above the rim.
Above the Rim is the story of NBA player Elgin Baylor and how he changed basketball, but it is also the story of Civil Rights in the United States and how Elgin contributed to that movement.
Readers follow Elgin from age 14 when he began playing basketball “in a field down the street” to college ball at the College of Idaho to becoming the #1 draft pick for the Minneapolis Lakers (later the LA Lakers) to being named 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year. At the same time readers follow the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and the African American college students sitting at the “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.
In his first season Baylor sat out a game to protest the hotel and restaurants serving “whites only,” leading the NBA commissioner to make an anti-discrimination rule. “Elgin had already changed the way basketball was played. Now by sitting down and NOT playing, he helped change things off court.”
“Artists [such as Baylor,] change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture.” (Author’s Note)
This picture book, exquisitely illustrated by Frank Morrison, belongs in every classroom and home library for readers of all ages. Lyrically written in free verse by Jen Bryant, it would serve as a mentor text for many Writing Workshop focus lessons:
repetition, free verse, and rhyming lines for musicality
technical language (jargon), i.e., hanging jumper, spin-shot, backboard
active verbs, i.e., gliding, shifting, floating, twisted, reverse dunked
Figurative language, i.e., floating like a bird or a cloud
Sensory details, i.e., steamy summer day, padlocked fences, clickety-clack trains, flick of his wrist, beds that were too short, cold food
Following the story, the author provides a lengthy Author’s Note about Baylor, a bibliography of Further Reading, and a 1934-2018 Timeline of Elgin’s life, black athletes, and Civil Rights highlights.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander At the top of the key, I’m MOVING & GROOVING, POPPING and ROCKING-- Why you BUMPING? Why you LOCKING? Man, take this THUMPING, Be careful though, ‘cause I’m CRUNKing CrissCROSSING FLOSSING flipping and my dipping will leave you S L I P P I N G on the floor, while I SWOOP in to the finish with a fierce finger roll… Straight in the hole: Swoooooooooooosh. (3)
It is difficult to believe that anyone has not heard of, or read, Kwame’s Alexander’s verse novel, the story of twin basketball players who behave like any adolescent brothers and then face a family trauma together. This verse novel has captivated reluctant readers, especially male, since its publication. It is written so that, even non-fans, can visualize and hear the game of basketball.
The Crossover is now available as a graphic novel.
Rebound by Kwame Alexander I want to be the hero in my story. (339)
The year Charlie Bell turned twelve many good things were supposed to happen, but his father died suddenly, and Charlie began to lose his way. His dad was “a star in our neighborhood” but on March 9, 1988, Charlie’s “star exploded.” A good kid, with his best friend Skinny, he starts making bad decisions—skipping school, taking part in stealing an elderly neighbor’s deposit bottles. Even his smart friend CJ, a girl who might become more than a friend, can’t keep him on track. And his life began to revolve around his comics.
Then his mother sends Charlie to spend the summer with his grandparents on their “farm.” Through his grandmother’s love and his grandfather’s work ethic, and most of all, through his cousin Roxie’s obsession with basketball, the re-named Chuck discovers a love for basketball, and he learns to “rebound on the court. And off.” (2)
I became immediately caught up in the rhythm and rhyme of the free verse, and font size, style, and spacing were effectively employed throughout the narrative. However there were a lot of pages devoted to couplet dialogue that broke the rhythm and became somewhat monotonous. Many readers will be engaged by the graphics, comic book style, that are scattered throughout. One disappointment was many erroneous cultural references, pointed out by those reviewers more in tuned with the 80’s than I.
However, I fell in love with Charlie/Chuck and all the other characters, especially granddaddy Percival Bell and cousin Roxie Bell. In fact, I would love to see a novel featuring the young Miss Bell herself. This was definitely a character-driven novel.
A prequel to The Crossover—Charlie is the twins’ father—this book would serve as a companion reading and can stand on its own, although I am not sure that the last section, set in 2018, would make sense to those who had not read The Crossover.
FOOTBALL: Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
Long a been a fan of Jacquelyn Woodson’s books, I have read all her picture books, middle grades, YA, and adult novels. This novel for middle grade readers not only is a well-written verse novel (my favorite format when crafted masterfully as Woodson does) but addresses an important topic—CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussion. Many of our children are affected by CTE either through their parents and other relatives who played sports as children and as adults or served in the military or as athletes themselves who may face CTE in their futures. Sports with high risks of concussion are rugby, American football, ice hockey, and soccer, as well as lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, softball, field hockey, baseball, and cheerleading.
Before the ever after, there was three of us And we lived happily Before the ever after. (7)
Before the Ever After there was ZJ, his mother and famous father. ZJ’s father was Zachariah 44, a pro football star, hero to many and to his son, he’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing. (4)
But in the Ever After, ZJ’s dad is forgetful, moody, has splitting headaches, and sometimes even yells. Only 35 years old, he has good days and bad days. The many doctors he visits and tests he is subjected to don’t have any answers or a cure, but doctors all agree this is a result of the many concussions he suffered in his career as a football player. Only ZJ’s music seems to bring him peace.
Before—and During—the Ever After, ZJ has loyal, true friends: Ollie, Darry, and Daniel: Feels like we’re all just one amazing kid the four of us, each a quarter of a whole. (108)
And he has his music: When I sing, the songs feel as magic as Daniel’s bike as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers as smooth as Darry’s moves as good as the four of us hanging out on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
It feels right and clear and always. (15)
This is a novel about the effects of CTE but also the story of family and friends and can be combined in Book Clubs with Gordon Korman’s Pop and Ellen Hopkin’s What about Will.
Operation Do-Over by Gordon Korman I’ve already seen that everything in my life doesn’t have to go exactly the way it went the first time around. (123)
Who has never wished for a “Do Over”? Sometimes it is something little, like a golf swing or studying for that test, but sometimes it is a major event, something that has affected our life.
Mason and Ty were best friends from age three or even before that, before they even knew what “friends” were. They were actually even closer than best friends, finishing each other’s sentences and “We can look at each other and crack up laughing at a joke neither of us has to say out loud.” (8-9) Both considered nerds, bullied by Dominic and Miggy, interested in school—especially science—and obsessed with time travel. “TY and I may not be cool, but we’ve got each other’s backs one thousand percent. Plus, we’re smart, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything middle school could throw at us that we can’t handle.” (11) But in seventh grade, it did—a new student, Ava Petrakis.
Ava turns out to be the nicest, prettiest, smartest girl, and she is popular with everyone, but she chooses to spend time with Mason and Ty. Realizing they both have a crush on Ava, they make a pact not to pursue their interest. But when Mason and Ava kiss at the Harvest Festival, the friendship ends.
Five years later, Mason and Ty are still not friends and an incident occurs which has far-reaching repercussions. After a car accident Mason ends up going back in time to his 12-year-old self with a chance at a Do-Over. Having studied time travel for years, Mason knows that he has to be careful how his actions affect the future, but he just can’t resist making some changes. Can he save his parents’ marriage; can he train his beloved dog not to run into the path of a Roto-Rooter truck; can he actually earn the respect of the class bullies; and, most important, can he avoid Ava and keep his friendship with Ty?
Well-written with humor and pathos, featuring engaging characters (male and female) and a protagonist-narrator whom readers will champion from the beginning through his “two futures,” this novel has everything: a plot with twists and turns, bullies, nerds, football players, (and those who perform dual roles), time travel, crushes, and a dog. Spanning Mason’s 7th grade and 12th grade lives, Gordon Korman writes this one for readers of all ages and would be a perfect addition to a Gordon Korman Author Study Book Club.
What about Will by Ellen Hopkins Twelve-year-old Trace’s world changes when his older brother Will is injured in a high school football accidental collision with another player. Luckily, he was not paralyzed, But his brain had volleyed Between the sides of his skull So hard it was swollen. (14)
Will is left with rages, headaches, and a “wrecked” facial nerve leaving him with no expression except for a facial tick. Their mother blames their father for letting Will play football and their already-fragile marriage dissolves when she leaves for a permanent tour with her band. “When you’re scared, blame comes easy.” (13)
Will changes, dumping his loyal girlfriend and hanging out with new friends—a seemingly bad crowd who he sneaks out to join at all hours, and Trace is left without the big brother he remembers. Probably what I miss most of all, though, is having a big brother to talk to. Some things you can’t tell just anyone. (18)
Luckily Trace has Bram, his best friend, and a new friend, Cat, the newest member and only girl (and maybe best player) on Trace’s Little League team and his new partner in the Gifted program at school. Cat has a troubled older brother and empathizes with Trace. When Cat’s father, the famous baseball player Victor Sanchez, signs Trace’s glove, Will steals and pawns it. In fact, Will has stolen all of Trace’s saved money, and Trace becomes suspicious of Will’s “activities” but is hesitant to bother his father who works hard and has a new girlfriend.
Also, I keep thinking if I keep his secrets don’t tell Dad don’t bother Mom he’ll trust me enough to tell me why he hardly ever leaves his room, and where he goes when he ducks out the door the minute Dad’s back is turned.
I miss the original Will. (25)
As things become worse, Trace realizes, I need someone here for me… I feel like a kite Come loose from its string And its tail tangled up In a very tall tree. No way to rescue it Unless a perfect w Whisp of wind Plucks it just right, sets it free. (333)
When Will overdoses (mistake? suicide attempt?), everyone—Dad, Lily, Mom, Mom’s boyfriend, their neighbor, Cat, and Bram—comes together and support not only Will but Trace.
What about Will has become my favorite Ellen Hopkins’ verse novel with cherished characters. The story tackles hard topic in an appropriate way for middle-school readers and belongs in all classroom and school libraries. I would suggest that books with similar topics to combine for book club reading would be Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish, Donna Gephart’s Abby, Tried and True, and Where We Used to Roam by Jenn Bishop.
Stick by Michael Harmon I don't like football (even though my son played); I am not interested in football novels; and I am not a fan of superheroes. But I could put down this novel.
Patterson ("Stick") is a football player, but with the overwhelming pressure from his father and his coach, he has lost the love of playing. Preston is an individual who has no friends but lives life on his own terms as he struggles with the guilt and trauma of his father's death, and he dresses as a superhero to help others in need.
When the two teens become friends, Preston encourages Stick to decide if he wants to remain on the team. His decision to quit appears to derail his life when his father kicks him out of the house and his former friends on the team savagely turn on not only him but also Preston, but taking charge of his life actually helps Stick to get back on track, a track that follows his heart and helps him save his father.
I am not sure whether it was the writing or the memorable characters and their inherent morality—or both, but I did not put down this novel until I finished—wanting the story to go on. I will miss both Stick and Preston but, most of all, their friendship.
Play Like a Girl by Misty Wilson Even though friends were kind of confusing, at least football ALWAYS made sense. (135)
Misty, a super-competitive athletic, was always challenging the boys in feats of strength and endurance. But, in the summer before seventh grade, she was surprised, when deciding to play for the town’s football league, that even her friends on the team did not support her decision. When Cole said, “‘Football really isn’t a sport for girls’…not a single one of them was sticking up for me.” (7)
Undeterred, Misty joins the team and talks her best friend Bree into joining also. But Bree quits and starts hanging around with the popular Mean Girl Ava, and when Misty tries to change to be more “girly” like the two (a hilarious try at makeup), they still make fun of her, and Misty realizes, with Bree gone, she has no friends.
She throws herself into football and, as she wins over many of her male team members, she is befriended by two of the cheerleaders who appear to accept her, and like her, just as she is. “Middle school was complicated. But I knew one thing for sure: I was done trying to be someone else.” (258)
Misty Wilson’s graphic memoir (illustrated by husband David Wilson) shares her story of football, family, middle-grade friends and frenenemies—and empowerment and identity.
SOCCER: Furia by Yamile Saied Mendez My mom smiled through her tears, “Mamita, you can’t have it all. You’ll see.” Although I wanted to yell that this was the greatest lie told to girls like us for centuries, seeing the defeat in her eyes, I couldn’t find my voice.” (231)
Camila Hassan is one of the best futbol players in Rosario, Argentina. On the field she is known as La Furia, but she has to keep this part of her life secret from her mother and her abusive father, an ex-player himself. Her brother Pablo is working his way to national fame, and the family’s hopes are centered on his success, but Camila proves herself to be an even better player.
When her childhood friend (and possibly more as of the night he left to play international soccer in Italy) returns home and declares his love, asking Camila to come to Italy with him, she feels sure that it is possible to have it all.
This is a novel of preconceptions and choices and the rights of girls to stay safe and follow their dreams.
One day, when a girl was born in Rosario, the earth would shake with anticipation for her future and not dread. (296)
Booked by Kwame Alexander Gameplay on the pitch, lightning faSt dribble, fake, then make a dash
player tries tO steal the ball lift and step and make him fall
zip and zoom to find the spot defense readies for the shot
Chip, then kick it in the air take off like a Belgian hate
shoot it left, then watch it Curve all he can do is observe
watch the ball bEnd in midflight play this game faR into night. (1)
Another popular Alexander verse novel which will grab reluctant readers and give readers a new appreciation for the rhythm of poetry. Booked relates a story of soccer, friendship, bullying, impressing girls, and the power of words. And provides a perfect mentor text for poetry and word studies.
Twelve-year-old Nick Hall, school soccer team star, has his own family problems to deal with and is mentored by one of YA literature’s most memorable characters, the rapping school librarian.
Nick lives in “a prison of words,” his father being a linguistics professor with “chronic verbomania,” rather than musician or owner or an oil company or a cool detective as Nick wishes; his mother is a good tennis player, “beating [Nick] for the fourth game in a row” (6-7) and a former horse trainer.
Booked is now available as a graphic novel.
Braced by Alyson Gerber Author Walter Dean Myers said that everyone should see himself in a book, which we now refer to "books as mirrors," while his son Christopher Myers has referred to books as maps, helping teens navigate adolescent life.
Braced was written about a 7th grader who has scoliosis and has to wear a back brace. Alyson Gerber is a new author who, as an adolescent, experienced the same challenge. This novel joins the growing market of YA lit which can serve as mirrors and maps for any adolescent who feels different written by authors who know of what they speak.
TENNIS: Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi I know what you’re thinking-- ‘Aafiyah Qamar, just STOP!’ Believe me, I’ve tried. But I can only stop when the thing I want —Need-- is safe in my hands or even better… my bag. (59)
Aafiyah Qamar, a Pakistani-American seventh-grader, lives with her Abba (father), Mom, and little brother Ibrahim. She is healthy, has money, and is happy— “aafiyah” (well-being) in Pakistani. “Everything good. Just like me. (3). She only has one friend, the more sophisticated Zaina, who is a neighbor and classmate, and one friend is enough for her. Fia also plays tennis, collects “Weird but True” facts, and has an unusual habit she cannot control—kelptomania, a recurring drive to steal that the person cannot resist, stealing items for the sake of stealing, not usually because the items are wanted or needed, or because they cannot afford to buy them; it is rare in children.
When Aafiyah turned 13, she realizes she has become pretty. That’s when the trouble started. People were so busy looking at my face, my curled eyelashes (it’s Vaseline), they forgot to look at my hands. (27)
She is guilty about her habit. Sometimes when I borrow things and guilt swirls in my mind, I feel like a r k n b o e piece of my family. (33)
Told in verse, this the story of a challenging year in a young adolescent’s life. Aafiyah experiences mild hearing loss. Her Dada Abu (grandfather) has cancer and needs to come to the United States for treatment. On a trip to Pakistan to bring back Dada and Dadi Abu, Fia’s father is charged with embezzlement from his company, and he and Dadi have to remain in Pakistan until his name can be cleared. In the U.S. Fia tries to help with their decreasing finances but devises a less-than-perfect Plan which costs her the friendship with Zaina and Zaina’s family, her phone, her position on the tennis team (Mom’s decision), and shame.
But readers become witness to Aafiyah’s growth. I’m not that girl anymore, The one who gives into her whims. (304)
BASEBALL/SOFTBALL: Fast Pitch by Nic Stone Twelve-year-old Shanice Lockwood is captain of a softball team, the Firebirds, the only all-Black softball team in the Dixie Youth Softball Association. She comes from a long line of batball players—her father, her grandfather PopPop, her great-grandfather. Her one goal is for her team to win the state championship.
But her goal shifts when she meets her Great-Great Uncle Jack, her Great-Grampy JonJon’s brother.
Shanice’s father had to quit baseball when he blew out his knee, his father had to stop playing to support his family, but why did JonJon quit when he was successfully playing for the Negro American League and was one of the first Black players recruited to the MLB? When Shanice is taken to Peachtree Hills Place to meet her sometimes-senile uncle, he tells her that JonJon “didn’t do what they said he did…He was framed.” (46) “My brother ain’t no thief. He didn’t do it…But I know who did.” (47)
And Shanice is off on a quest to research the incident that caused her great grandfather to leave baseball and to see if she, with Jack’s information and JonJon’s leather journal, can clear his name while still trying to lead her softball team to victory.
Fast Pitch is a fun new novel by Nic Stone, full of batball, adventure, a little mystery, peer and family relationships, Negro League history, prejudice, and maybe a first crush.
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit Things are changing, and it’s all because of baseball. (39)
Middle-school student Vivian Jane Cohen loves baseball and wants to be a knuckleball pitcher when she grows up. This has been her goal ever since, three years before, she attended an Autism Foundation “social thingy” and met Major League pitcher VJ Capello who showed her how to pitch a knuckleball. “The problem is, I’ve never pitched in a real game. I don’t play for a team. And I don’t know if I ever will.” (1)
It’s Vivy’s mother who thinks that being the only girl on a baseball team would be too much for Vivy’s challenges. My challenges. Of course. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? And I do know I have challenges, but sometimes I feel like Mom doesn’t see all the things I CAN do. (91) And her supportive father doesn’t speak up. And her big brother Nate, who says she throws a wicked knuckleball, has been MIA from her life lately.
As an assignment for her social skills group, Vivy has to write a letter to someone. She chooses VJ Capello (same initials as hers), and they soon start writing back and forth as Vivy, in letters to and supported by VJ, describes her journey after she finally convinces her mother to let her join the Flying Squirrels: bullying by the coach’s son, support from and friendship with her catcher, and the ups and downs of pitching well “Could it be true? They weren’t staring at me because I’m weird, but because I can do something really well? (106)] and sometimes pitching not so well.
Then Vivy is hit in the head with a ball and has to convince her mother to let her play all over again.
Through all her trials and tribulations, [It’s not like anyone ever told me that I’m brain-damaged or anything. But… normal kids don’t have to go to therapy and social skills group all the time. Normal kids don’t have mothers who worry about every little thing they do…. Normal kids don’t get called monkey girl. (220)], Vivy is supported by the missives from VJ., I know you’re facing difficulties that are somewhat unique…I can’t really say what it’s like to be an autistic girl on a baseball team. I’m sure it’s hard. As a Black, Ivy League-educated knuckleballer, I know a few things about being an outsider even on your own team. (63)
When Vivy finds out why her brother Nate has been so secretive, it is her chance to support him and his new relationship in the same way as VJ tells Vivy, “Just know this: You have another knuckleball pitcher rooting for you.” (50)
Coming Up Short by Laurie Morrison I never play scared. I always want to make the play. (2)
Bea’s parents think she can do anything—“You‘re the best kid in the world.”(40)—which brings a lot of pressure to be perfect.
On the day that seventh grader Beatrix Bartlett leads her softball team to the championships, her world crumbles. She finds out that her father took funds from a client’s account to use for other purposes—the same day the entire town finds out. And while trying to keep her parents happy, and ignore her friends who are all saying the wrong things, her softball game falls apart; she gets the “yips” and runs off the field during the championship game.
I’m not a gutsy, fearless softball star. I’m a quitter. I’m a head case. I’m ‘that poor girl. (61)
Finding out that they really can’t afford the sleep-away softball camp she was to attend with her friends, Bea enrolls in a day camp run by her favorite softball player, Rose Marvin of the U.S. national team, held in her mother’s hometown, Gray Island. There she stays with her mother’s older sister, meets her mother’s former friends, and makes some new friends herself. And she learns secrets about her mother and the reasons her mother has never returned.
Focused on her family problems, she burns some bridges with her best friend Jessi and her new friend Hannah. I try to breathe in love and appreciation for myself right now [as Rose advised her players], but then I remember how mad Hannah was and how sad Jessi sounded, and I’m too disappointed in myself to feel any love at all. (240)
How responsible is someone for the happiness of another? Bea learns a valuable lesson from her aunt. “It isn’t your job to make your parents happy. Their happiness isn’t your responsibility. No one can be responsible for another person’s happiness.” (240)
Bea begs her parents to come to Gray Island for her final game. But again her family scandal is revealed and again she loses control and runs off the field.
After an honest talk with her parents, she returns to the field. I didn’t get any hits. I didn’t make any good throws. But getting back out there on the field even though I was terrified and embarrassed—I think maybe that was gutsier than any play I’ve ever made. I think maybe I’m proud too. (274)
Laurie Morrison’s delightful new novel is full of characters adolescent readers will relate to and lessons we all need to learn about relationships and opening up. Maybe it isn’t such a shameful thing to lose control sometimes because the only alternative is putting up a whole lot of gates and closing yourself off. (260)
Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz “You may not get to choose what sport you play or when you get to play it, but you get to choose who you are. And in the end, that’s what matters most.” (ARC, 194)
When Dani makes the all-boy baseball team, she is sure she has reached her goal. But when she goes on a camping trip with her best friend Eric and the camper explodes, trapping her inside, events seem to be keeping her from achieving her dream. Dani sustaines injuries that, no matter how determined she is, will keep her from pitching this year.
And Eric, even though he went into the burning camper and rescued Dani, is afraid that, characteristically forgetful as he is, he left on the stove burner the night before and caused the fire. When he tells Dani, she can’t forgive him and allows her new friend, the popular Meadow, to call him a loser in front of the other kids in the school. Since she always has had his back, Eric is shocked, especially when they find out that he was not responsible for the incident and the bullying continues.
Eric finds out that the actual cause of the fire was a defective remote-control toy, and with his new crush Rachel and the help of a podcaster, takes the necessary steps to ensure the public is aware and that the manufacturer is stopped from producing the toy and made to recall those on the market. Eric has turned his ADD and ability to see things from different angles into his superpower.
Meanwhile Dani is not sure she likes the person she is becoming, especially when she finds out that her new friend has been telling lies. “My brain spins. Meadow’s not the person I thought she was. She’s the person Eric knew she was. My eyes sting. I miss my old life. Tears hit my lap. I miss me.” (ARC, 206)
Told in alternating narratives by Dani and Eric, HIDDEN TRUTHS is a story of having a dream and changing that dream without changing yourself. It is a story of loss and what constitutes friendship and standing up to make a difference. Dani and Eric’s story can teach preteen readers many things about themselves, how to treat their peers, how to be part of a team, and how to see the person behind the person. It is a story about baseball, superheroes, and doughnuts—of love, forgiveness, and identity. It is a story that will resonate with readers and provide a map for those who are navigating the hidden truths of middle school.
WRESTLING: Takedown by Laura Shovan
Mikayla comes from a family of wrestlers. Her two older brothers are wrestlers, and wrestling is one way she can connect with her father who moved out. In sixth grade, under her wrestling name of Mickey, she joins the Gladiators travel team after the coach of the Eagles refuses to include a girl on the team. Her best girlfriend whom she has wrestled with for years decides that wrestling is no longer for her; in fact, it may never have been. And Mickey becomes the only girl on the team where she has to prove she belongs. There she meets Lev and his friends and becomes part of the Fearsome Foursome.
Lev’s best friend Bryan knows they won’t spend much time together during wrestling season and starts pursuing other interests. But Lev comes from a sports family where they spend their weekends and holidays at matches and his sister’s field hockey games. However,he finds he is writing poetry to calm himself down and getting headaches and missing the old family dinners and cultural traditions, and now he is even questioning the sport he used to love.
When Lev and Mickey are paired at practice, he is afraid she might get in the way of his training for States. But as their friendship grows, he finds that as he stands up for her goals, his just might have changed.
As an author on a sports fiction panel once said, sports is the setting, not the story. And even though the reader learns quite a lot about wrestling and the world of adolescent wrestlers through alternating narratives by Mikayla and Lev, Laura Shovan's new novel is a story about family, friendships, resilience, and finding identity.
GYMNASTICS: Chirp by Kate Messner All summer she’d been hoping she might find her way back to that girl in the picture, but she’d been thinking about it all wrong. It wasn’t about finding her way back.…She’d have to find her way forward. (226-227)
Mia had been the type of girl that jumped off high rocks into the water, aiming for the Olympics in gymnastics, fearlessly trying new things. And then something happened that made her lose her voice, her confidence, her courage.
When her family moves back from Boston back to Vermont, Mia has a chance to help her grandmother with her cricket farm and business. As she observes the crickets and learn that “only the males chirp,” she wonders, “Was it that they couldn’t chirp at all, no matter what? Or were the boy crickets so loud that they never got the chance?”
With the help of new friends she meets in Launch Camp, Mia solves the mystery threatening her grandmother’s business and helps grow the cricket business. Mia especially loved she had a new friend. One who was brave enough for both of them. (88) Through Warrior Camp, she slowly regains her confidence and courage to tell her parents about what happened in Boston.
Another important novel on sexual harassment and abuse to pair with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words for MG readers—girls and boys.
BOXING: Becoming Muhammad Ali by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson Becoming Muhammad Ali relates the story of boxer Cassius Clay from the time he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12 until he won the Chicago Golden Gloves on March 25, 1959—with glimpses forward to his 1960 Olympic gold medal and his transformation to Muhammad Ali.
The novel is creatively co-written by two popular authors in the voices of two narrator-characters: James Patterson writes as Cassius’ childhood best friend Lucius “Lucky” in prose and Kwame Alexander writes in verse, sometimes rhyming, most times not, as Cassius Clay. Dawud Anyabwile drew the wonderful illustrations.
Cassius Clay’s grandaddy always advised him, “Know who you are, Cassius. And whose you are. Know where you going and where you from.” (25) and he did. From Louisville, Kentucky, from Bird and Clay, and (in his own “I Am From” poem) from slavery to freedom,…from the unfulfilled dreams of my father to the hallelujah hopes of my momma. (28-29)
Readers learn WHY Cassius Cassius fought, for my name for my life for Papa Cash and Momma Bird for my grandaddy and his grandaddy… for America for my chance for my children for their children for a chance at something better at something way greater. (296-297)
As Lucky tells the reader, “He was loud. He was proud. He called himself the Greatest. Even when he wasn’t. Yet. But deep down, where it mattered, he could be very humble. It was another part of him that he didn’t let most people see.” (231) “He was also a true and loyal friend.” (305)
Throughout the novel, readers also learn boxing moves, information about famous boxers, such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and matches, and even more about the person who was Cassius Clay and became Muhammad Ali.
SWIMMING: UNSETTLED by Reem Faruqi In my last school, I always knew where to sit and with who. In my last school, my name was known. In my last school, my voice was loud. In this school, I am mute. In this school, I am invisible. (91-92)
Nurah, her older brother Owais and their parents move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree, Georgia, for better schools and job security, leaving behind her three grandparents and her best friend Asna. The transition is not easy. In America they live in a hotel; Nurah’s mother seems to be fading, and her brother begins rebelling. When Nurah and Owais find a swimming pool at the Rec Center, they regain a bit of home. But Owais is an expert swimmer, appearing to fit in more effortlessly.
It is important to note that my skin is dark like the heel of oatmeal bread while Owais’s skin is light like the center of oatmeal bread. We do not look alike are not recognized as brother and sister. (225)
The water is Nurah’s only friend, until
“Do you want to eat lunch with me?” 8 words that change my life. (110)
Nurah’s new friend Stahr also wears long sleeves, but not from Muslim modesty, and her secret bring the two girls and their mothers together.
And one day when Stahr is not at school at lunchtime, and Naurah is being bullied,
“I’m Destiny. You can eat with us…” (216)
And then Owais is beat up by two of the boys on the swim team, jealous of his success, and Nurah feels guilty for not warning him to not go into the locker room. After his hospitalization, he gives up swimming.
he is always in his room lately, because he is safer on land than in water (265)
And Nurah discovers another type of bullying when the boy she likes and his friends make fun of her visiting grandmother whose “mind becomes so tangled.”
I remember when my tongue Betrayed me. I remember I need to say something. I go back in to their laughter. I find my voice and spit it out “It’s not funny.” The store gets Very Quiet and I feel light again. I grab Dadi’s ice cream. I remember what hope tastes like… (273)
When Nurah decides to begin wearing her hijab,
In the beginning the looks of others spear me but the more I wear it the easier it becomes. the more I wear it the looks seem to soften. (284)
Finally, at the masjid with Owais and his new friend Junaid
Today I wear my hijab , Tightly wrapped, shimmery light blue,… today when I look in the mirror, I think-- “Not bad.” I feel prettier than I have In a long time And exactly where I’m supposed to be. (305)
A story of transition, new beginnings, the importance of friendship, and finding one’s voice and our “something unexpected,” Reem Faruqi’s verse novel is based on her childhood experiences as an immigrant living in Georgia.
Up for Air by Laurie Morrison Adolescence is hard. Seventh grader Annabelle is not a great student. She studies hard, is allowed extra time on tests, and is tutored at lunchtime, but her grades remain C’s. She sees how her friends pity her when tests are given out, and she is afraid of losing her scholarship to the boarding school where she is a day student. But the one place Annabelle does not have to struggle is in the swimming pool where she is the fastest swimmer on the middle grade summer swim team.
When Annabelle is invited to join the high school team, she finally feels like she excels and belongs and is someone special, but her problems are just beginning. When Connor, one of the best looking and most popular high school boys, starts paying her attention, Annabelle reads too much meaning into his texts and flirting. She felt powerful. Unstoppable. Extraordinary. (12) When her father who left years before contacts her, she also reads more into his invitation as she runs away to join him.
In this confusing summer when her friend Mia joins the popular crowd and she pushes away her longtime friend Jeremy in order to hang out with Connor, Annabelle almost loses who she is. But it struck her how easy it was to bond with girls, too, by sort of making fun of someone else.… She didn’t like it when she was part of the group that got complained about but here she was doing it, too. (122) In a prank to impress Connor who, it turns out, has a girlfriend, Annabelle is injured and the summer seems to be a disaster. No swimming, no Mia, no Jeremy, and now no Connor. (215)
But Belle finally appreciates how special she is to her mother and her stepfather, and she apologizes to Jeremy and reevaluates her relationship to Mia who is negotiating her own adolescence. And she decides that what she wants is to be strong, Even if that meant doing scary embarrassing things…. (271)
Laurie Morrison’s novel shares the growing pains of adolescence where some things may be easy but even more are hard—and confusing.
Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas “But…Black people aren’t good at swimming.” (78)
When Bree and her father move from Brooklyn to Florida, she is excited about her first day of school. She has already made a friend, another 7th grader who lives in her apartment complex. Excited about joining the Math Team, Bree finds that the only elective that is still open is Swimming. And even though she tries to think about the things that make her happy—doing homework with her Dad, cooking, reading, and math—frequently “negative thoughts take over. And I think about the things that make me nervous and scared. I second-guess and doubt myself, even when I don’t want to.” (7) And some of the things that Bree doesn’t like are sports, pools, and she worries about not having friends. She is especially worried about Swimming class because she has never learned to swim.
Bree eludes the class, and, when she can no longer avoid it, Ms Etta, her neighbor and a former professional swimmer who happens to have swum on the team at Bree’s middle school back when the team almost won the championship, teaches Bree to swim. Ms Etta also explains the reasons that Bree assumes that Black people aren’t good at swimming. “From ancient Africa to modern Africa, from Chicago to Peru, in seas, rivers, lakes and pools, Black people have always swum and always will.” (80-81)
But she also explains the history of segregation and discrimination that limited Blacks’ access to pools, describing Eugene Williams’ murder (1919), David Isom’s breaking of the color line (1958), and John Lewis’ protest (1962).
Bree becomes quite a good swimmer, and the coach of the school swim team tricks her into trying out. She joins the team with her new best friend Clara, and, with the help of Ms. Etta, the team makes it to the championship. But when a student, Mean-Girl Keisha, transfers from the rival private school and joins the team and the girls find out that Clara has won a swimming scholarship to the same private school for the next year, the team relay threatens to fall apart.
That is when they learn what happened to Ms. Etta’s team years ago that cost them the championship. Reuniting the former Swim Sisters reunites the present team as they learn about relationships. A team is like a family. Sometimes family shows you how to do a flip turn. Or tells funny jokes—And is a little annoying. (215)
Johnnie Christmas’ new graphic novel tells the story of middle-grade friendships, socioeconomic prejudice and racial discrimination, and swimming through those negative thoughts that hold us back. In the classroom this novel could lead to some research on Black athletes in sports through history and discrimination.
Tillie Heart and Soul by Mary Atkinson I grew up in a small town where everyone I knew had a “typical” family—mom, dad, siblings, maybe a pet and a station wagon, or at least I assumed they did. When I began teaching, I found that very few of my students were part of a ”typical” family, that families came in all varieties, but many of those kids longed for that family from The Donna Reed Show or even The Brady Bunch.
Ten-year-old Tillie lives with her uncle, an artist in a loft with other artists. She doesn’t know who her dad is, and her mother is in rehab for substance abuse in another state. Even though she looks nightly at the three pictures she has of her mom and talks to her in her mind, Tillie seems okay with living with her loving, protective, gay uncle, hoping for the day her mom is well enough to return.
Tillie works on her roller skating. She is sure that if she can compete in the upcoming roller skating Skate-a-Thon and make her mother proud, her mother will come back.
Even though she is teased at school for her small stature, Tillie is content enough until Glory Peterson comes to their school. It isn’t Glory herself but her family and fancy bedroom that causes Tillie to doubt her uncle and their life together and tell her first lie. Then her BFF Shanelle drops Tillie and shares Tillie's secrets to get Glory’s attention and friendship. Tillie feels even more alone, and she starts to wonder if she has been too much trouble for the people she loves. “Why can’t I have a mother like everyone else? What’s wrong with me?”
This is a little novel for those 4-8 graders who feel different (and who doesn’t at that age?), who have lost someone—divorce, death, addiction—and are trying to navigate the shifting social relationships of the middle grades and that which we call our families.
BOWLING: In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart Grieving her mother’s death, Amy is torn from her best friend and her home in Chicago to live in her uncle’s funeral home in Buckington, Pennsylvania. Her father is learning the funeral trade and is away Monday to Friday, and Amy, even with her optimism, is not making new friends. Life hits a low when she sits down with girls in the middle school cafeteria—and they move to another table. But she meets a new best friend, Tate, a weight lifter with interesting fashion sense, in the school library, and they spend their lunch hours talking stories and eating Jelly Krimpets.
Meanwhile Miles is still grieving the loss of his grandmother while worrying about his grandfather dying. Many times, especially in multi-generational households, the death of a grandparent affects a child as much as the loss of a parent. In fact, Miles worries about everything. His family owns Buckington Bowl, and bowling the perfect game, especially while beating his best friend Randall, is his goal.
And a bowling shoe is how Miles and Amy connect—literally, both at the beginning and the end of this delightful middle-grades novel. In addition to Randall and Tate, Amy and Miles become each other’s support system through the special bond of grief and loss.
A delightful novel about the power of family and friendship which features two sports uncommon for a middle-grades book, female weight-lifting and bowling. The story also conveys the power of story, those we read and those we write.
FENCING: Black Brother—Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes “Be you. Stay confident, visible. Even if others can’t see you.” (183)
Trey and Donte are biracial brothers, but Trey looks like his White father, and 7th grader Donte takes after his Black mother. This didn’t seem to matter in their public school in New York where they both had lots of friends, but at Middlefield Prep in Boston, it does. Trey is a popular and respected athlete while Donte is taunted and bullied. Trey stands up for Donte when he can, “Ellison brothers stick together” (47), but Alan, the school bully, leads his followers in a chant of “black brother, black brother.” It’s Alan who wants other students to see only [Trey’s] blackness. See it as a stain. (34) and makes me being darker than my brother a crime. (44)
When Donte complains, “Everyone here bullies me. Teachers. Students. Whispers, sometimes outright shouts follow me” (6), not only is Headmaster McGeary not sympathetic, he blames and even punishes him for crimes he has not committed. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” (8). He calls the police and has Donte taken to jail for slamming his backpack at his own feet in frustration. Released from jail, his mom, a lawyer says, “This is how it starts. Bias. Racism. Plain and simple…” (24)
One option is to “Disappear. Be invisible.” (19), but Donte vows to beat Alan at his own game—fencing. With Trey’s help, he discovers Arden Jones, an African American Olympic fencer who works at the local Boys and Girls Club and convinces Mr. Jones to coach him. As Donte gets stronger with the help of Coach, Trey, and his new friends at the Boys and Girls Club, he begins to regain a trust in people. “Prejudice is wrong. Wrong; it makes me doubt people.” (87) He learns his Coach’s history and how it is easy to lose oneself in people’s hatred. As Coach tells him when relating his own past failure, “I quit playing because I gave up on me. Became invisible.… Should’ve kept focused on my goals. Should’ve known bullies, biased people, can’t see clearly.” (182) His advice, “Don’t do anything for anyone else, Donte. Do it for you. Only you.” (131)
And most important, through fencing, Coach, his supportive family, and his new friends, Donte learns that he wants to fence, no longer to beat Alan and humiliate him but “to be the best.” (183)
Another powerful novel for 4th though 8th graders by Jewell Parker Rhoads, author of Ninth Ward, Towers Falling, and Ghost Boys, this short novel, as did Ghost Boys, tackles racism—by adolescents, adults, and society‑head on. The sport of fencing, tied to honor and nobility and promoting good sportsmanship, is particularly appropriate; every fencing bout starts with a salute to your opponent and ends with a handshake.
TABLE TENNIS: Call Me Adnan by Reem Fauqi
Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children one through four. (Author’s Note)
This is Adnan Zakir’s story but it is also a story of family, friends, challenges, loss, grief, guilt, and recovery.
Twelve year old Adnan is colorblind, left-handed, and, most important of all, big brother to 2-1/2 year old Rizwan (and younger brother to sister Aaliyah). His best friends are Sufian and his 12-year-old sister Summar (who may be Adnan’s crush).
All of his friends and family members have their own talents. “Aaliyah: If you give her a ball of play dough, she will turn it into the perfect rose. Sufian: If you give him a basketball, he will swoosh the ball in the net. Summar: If you give her a gumball, she will blow a huge bubble. Me: If you give me a table tennis ball and a paddle, I will challenge you to a match.” (46)
Besides expertise in the Aviation Alphabet (a secret code with his mom) and an interest in aviation, Adnan is a passionate table tennis player and hopes to become a champion and maybe a professional. He practices all the time with his coach, his family members, and his friends. The worst thing he can imagine is losing. “Losing makes me feel awful. Losing makes me want to hide under the table to never feel this way again.” (42)
But when he enters a championship, hoping to make it to finals in Florida where his family can spend Eid with the cousins, tragedy strikes. In Florida, Riz sneaks out of the house and drowns in the pool; Adnan is not only overwhelmed with grief, but with guilt—if he hadn’t entered the table tennis championship and the family hadn’t gone to Florida for the finals, Riz wouldn’t have died. If he had been watching his little brother more closely, Riz wouldn’t have gotten to the pool. His coach helps him move to the last stage of flight (thrust > weight > drag > lift)
Narrated in free verse by Adnan, his thoughts come alive by the intermittent use of typeface that create visual images: o p n And my feet are p p i g like kernels my sweat d r i p p i n g like butter