Throw Like a Girl

by Sarah Henning
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 7, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, mostly mild, and kissing. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’m not a huge aficionado of sports books for teens, but I have read some. Most are geared towards boys (like Kwame Alexander’s books or Stupid Fast), but every once in a while, I get a good sports book, especially a football book, that has a girl as the main character, and embraces the idea that girls, yes, can play football too. (Honestly: the last one I remember is Dairy Queen, which I loved.) In fact, Henning doesn’t dwell on the “can she play football?” issue here. Our main character, Liv, is actually scouted out by the starting quarterback, Grey, primarily because he’s seen her play softball (the sport she excels at) and mess around playing football with her brother, and he needs someone who can be a backup, since the freshman who is actually his backup is a bit weak.

There’s more going on in the plot than that — Liv lost her scholarship to the elite private school where she was playing softball for punching another player (with good reason) and there’s a nice romance between her and Grey — but it’s mostly about being on a team and working hard and just being able to play a game that she loves.

Henning was a former sports writer, and it shows: she’s able to not only give play-by-plays of the games (both football and softball), but she is able to portray the work it takes to be a good athlete, as well as the feelings that come from being a part of a team and from being on the field. (Not that I’ve ever been any of those things, but I feel like she gets it!) And she’s good on the romance front too: Liv and Grey’s relationship didn’t feel contrived, and it wasn’t perfect. Though there were some incredibly swoon-worthy parts.

It was a fun read, and one that will do well as part of the YA sports cannon.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Stupid Fast

by Geoff Herbach
ages: 14+
First sentence: “This could be a dark tale!”
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I will say this up front: in spite of what you might think judging from the title and the cover, this is not a football book. Sure, the main character, Felton Reinstein, gets drafted to play football (which he hasn’t the first clue about), football actually plays a real minor role.

It is, however, a guy book. In fact, that’s the best thing about this book. Herbach knows guys, and gets the voice down: his sweatyness, awkwardness, quirks, confusion, lusts, and cluelessness scream 15-year-old Guy. Additionally, it works because Felton is so dang likeable. Even in his guyness, you want to know this kid.

It’s the summer before Felton’s junior year. He’s about to turn 16, and his growth spurt (starting around Thanksgiving) has finally hit him: he can’t keep up with his body. That said, he’s, well, stupid fast. Which means he can actually do things in the sports arena, something which he never could do before. He almost beat the track star before nerves got to him. And so, he gets recruited to play for the football team. He has no idea what he’s doing, but it feels good to get out and work his body out. Especially since his home life has been falling apart at the seems.

See, his dad killed himself when Felton was five (Felton had the unfortunate experience of finding him), and his mother, Jerri, has been holding it together. Until this summer: now she’s slowly falling apart. Well, maybe not so slowly. She went from loving mom to calling Felton a jerk and a f-bomb-er, and spending her days in a dark room watching TV and sleeping. Felton has a way out, but his younger brother Andrew is suffering.

It sounds dark, but trust the first sentence: while it’s tackling some tough issues, it never becomes an issue book. It’s really just about Felton and his ability (or lack thereof) to deal with all the changes in his life. The ending does wrap things up a bit nicely, but instead of being happy, it’s more hopeful: that maybe Felton, in spite of all the crap around him — because, after all, he’s a nice guy — will will make everything work out for the best.

Dairy Queen: A Novel

This book has been flying around the kidlit blogs for a long time with statements along the lines of: if you haven’t read Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen then you MUST go read it NOW.

Add my voice to the throng. You must go read this now. (Or, as soon as possible.)

D.J. Schwenk, from Red Bend, Wisconsin, is many things: 15 (almost 16), single-handily holding down/running the family dairy farm, from a family who loves and lives for football, someone who flunked English, and someone who’s just trying to figure life out. So, when the coach of the Hawley High team (you have to understand that Red Bend and Hawley just don’t hate, they loathe each other) asks D.J. if she’d train the quarterback, Brian Nelson, she just about flips. But… she says yes. And he comes. And they realize it’s a good thing. Which opens up a huge can of worms (kind of like Pandora), and turns D.J.’s summer into one of the worst (and best) ones she’s ever had.

It’s not a complicated book, but it’s got sass. I loved the tone of the book, and because I loved the way it was written, I loved D.J. There is a intimacy to it: because it’s D.J.’s words, thoughts and feelings, you get the flavor of D.J. through her faults and worries, but also you glimpse her strengths, hopes and accomplishments. I was constantly laughing at her spot-on observations, especially about cows and people, and she had me spellbound with her storytelling. She’s got a normal, yet somehow messed up, family and she’s just trying to make sense of her place in it (what 16-year-old isn’t?) and in high school. Even though it’s got a bit of buildingsroman in it — D.J. trying to figure out how to grow up and make sense of the world and her desires — it never feels maudlin. Perhaps because it’s a bit chatty, for a novel, but I found it forgiveable, because I loved D.J.’s voice and passion so much.

It’s also a love song to football. Everyone in D.J.’s family has a passion for playing and living the game, and it came through loud and clear: football was not just a game, it was a way of life. I was a bit of a fan back before I married a guy who didn’t know a quarterback from a halfback, and I still follow “my” team through the newspapers, though I don’t watch much any more. (They’re not my team, but how about those Jayhawks?!) I felt like this book was accessible and enjoyable to those who know football, but it also is one that anyone who has a passion for anything could also relate to. D.J. has an immense love — passion — for the game, and that was only strengthened by her love for her family — especially her father and older brothers.

Really, my only complaint about the book was the cover. I mean cows with tiaras are okay enough, but someone must not have read the book before doing that. The paperback cover has it better:

And there you have it: a girl, a boy, a summer, a game and a really great book.