Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
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Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

Black Brother, Black Brother

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “I wish I were invisible.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 3, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s pretty simply told, and easy enough (and appropriate) for younger readers to understand. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Dante is the black brother in his family. His dad is white, his older brother Trey presents as white, but Donte and his mom present as black. Which wasn’t a problem until the family moved to a (mostly white) suburb of Boston and the boys started attending a (mostly white) prep school.

I’ll stop here and say this book is all about racism. Explicit racism from some of the students at the school — the story’s antagonist and school bully, Alan — but also the implicit racism in the system: Donte, because he is black, is the one who is always in trouble, who the teachers and the headmaster blame for things that go wrong. But it goes broader than that: Rhodes tackles the prison system — Donte is arrested for something he didn’t do at school, and the only reason he gets off is because he doesn’t present as stereo-typically black (and having a white father helped, too). And the overall racism inherent in sports.

It’s a simple book, but that makes sense, considering who its intended audience is. And Rhodes is a remarkable writer, able to simplify without dumbing down for her audience. It’s a good story, and one worth reading.

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.

Evvie Drake Starts Over

by Linda Holmes
First sentence: “Go now, or you’ll never go, Evvie warned herself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 25, 2019
Content: There is some talk of sex, and a handful of f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Evvvie (as in Chevy) Drake was unhappy in her marriage. She’d been with her high school sweetheart for nearly half her life, and it had gotten to the point where she couldn’t take his emotional abuse anymore. Except on the day that she decided to leave, he was killed in a car accident. No one ever knew about her decision.

Fast forward two years, and she hasn’t been able to get out from under her dead husband’s shadow. He was a beloved doctor in town, and since no one ever knew about the abuse, his memory is perfect. Which leaves Evvie wondering what that made her for wanting to get away. Enter Dean, a friend of Evvie’s best friend, Andy, who’s suffering from the “yips”: once a major league pitcher, he can’t throw a game anymore. He moves into the apartment in Evvie’s huge house, and the two of them set about figuring out each other. And maybe — just maybe — healing in the process.

Oh this was a delight. Seriously. Even if you don’t listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour (why don’t you?), there is reason to pick this up. It’s sweet and charming, with just enough depth to keep it grounded and from being too saccharine. I adored all the characters, from Evvie’s and Andy’s relationship (they’re really Just Friends, yay!) to the way Evvie and Dean developed. And the fact that Evvie got some female friends along the way, too. It was so incredibly satisfying watching Evvie blossom through the course of the book. And the love story was charming and sweet and oh-so-satisfying as well. I’ve always thought that Holmes knows her stuff when it comes to romance, and this just proves that she knows how to write is as well as she knows how to write about it.

An absolutely perfect summer book.

Module 11: Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX

letmeplayBlumenthal, K. (2005). Let me play: The story of Title IX. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

Genre: Non-fiction, history.

Book Summary:  A history of how Title IX came to be passed as law, the reasons behind why it was proposed and the effects it had on girls’ education and sports, focusing mostly on sports equality.

Impressions: I loved this! Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I vaguely knew about Title IX, but I didn’t really pay attention to the details. Going back and reading this made me realize just how much work not only had to be done but how much progress was made. I liked the insets featuring the people who were the primary movers and shakers behind the law. My only complaint was that it wasn’t terribly diverse, but maybe that was a side-effect of the times. The effect of Title IX on minority populations would be an interesting topic to explore, though.

Review: The reviewers called it a “thoughtful, enlightening and inspiring” look at Title IX and the effects it had at on womens’ education in America. They were really critical of the design of the book calling it an “absolutely criminal treatment from the designer”, which effected their overall view of the book.

Staff. (2006). Let me play: The story of Title IX: The law that changed the future of girls in America. Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/karen-blumenthal/let-me-play/

Library Uses: This one would be good on a library display about sports, feminism or in a women’s history month display or programming.

Readalikes:

  • Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin –  The story of the Carlisle Indian School Football Team in 1907 and how they became the “team that invented football”. Written by one of the great non-fiction writers of our time, this is a remarkable story.
  • Women in Sports by  Rachel Ignotofsky –  A collection of one-page biographies of women in sports from the 1800s to today. It also includes interesting facts about muscle anatomy and statistics about pay.
  • Rising Above: Inspiring Women in Sports by Gregory Zuckerman – A series of short biographies of women who rose above challenges in their lives to compete at the top of the game in their various sports.

No More Dead Dogs

by Gordon Korman
First sentence: “When my dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he once rescued eight Navy SEALs who were stranded behind enemy lines.”
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Content: There is some romance (just crushes and a bit of cheek kissing) and some mild cussing. The text is pretty simple. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I bet 6th graders would like it too.

Wallace Wallace (the poor guy getting stuck with parents who named him that!) ALWAYS tells the truth. Mostly it’s because his father was a horrible liar (well, exaggerator/storyteller) who eventually left his mom, and so Wallace decided to never do that. Unfortunately, his truth-telling doesn’t always come off well. In fact, in seventh grade English class everyone was required to read a “classic” — the made up Old Shep, My Pal — book and do a report on it. Wallace’s report, because he won’t lie: the book was awful. And please, no more dead dogs.

That report lands him in detention with the English teacher, who is also directing a play — an adaptation of, you guessed it, Old Shep — and so Wallace can’t go to football practice and instead ends up at play rehearsal. And, of course, advocates for changing the play. It’s more complex than that; it also involves pranks and Wallace being set up, and everyone not liking him, and a small middle school romance, but that’s the general picture of it.

I hadn’t ever read Gordon Korman’s books before, but I’d heard that he was funny and he gets kids. Well, maybe this was just dated — it was written in 2000 — which is often a problem with contemporary realistic fiction. But whatever the reason it really fell flat. The plot was silly (supposedly funny?). I guessed who the prankster was (was I supposed to? Or was it supposed to be a big reveal?) before the characters. I thought the kids were brats (maybe all middle schoolers are). And I just didn’t find it funny. But, humor is subjective: not everyone finds the same things amusing. So, I can forgive that. I can see how kids would eat this up: what I found annoying as an adult, they could relate to. And so I can see how it has value, even if I didn’t like it much at all.

The Playbook

theplaybookby Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “In 1891, James Naismith invented the game of basketball with a soccer ball and two peach baskets to use as goals, he also had to create some rules; 13 of them in fact.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 14, 2017
Review copy mysteriously appeared in my mail box at work.
Content: The biographical information and poems are written simply enough for a 9- or 10-year-old, but the content is interesting (and valuable) for everyone.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Alexander’s latest book: it’s sports, there’s poetry, pretty much what he’s delivered over the past few years. And yet, this was completely different. Springboarding from his own experiences with sports, Alexander has put together a guide book for, well, for succeeding in both sports and life. Divided up into four “quarters” (with a halftime) of thirteen “rules” each consisting of a short poem and a quote from an athlete (or some other notable person, many of whom are persons of color), this slim book packs a powerful punch.

In fact, the whole design of the book (if the ARC is reflective of the final package) is amazing. I loved the photography, the layout of the words on the page. And while it was inspirational — each of the sections was preceded by a short biographical sketch of an athlete — it never fell over into the maudlin. It’s perfect for sports fans, for kids, for those who are graduating and want a “guidebook” for succeeding — or at least wanting something to reflect on. It’s fun, gorgeous, and, ultimately, eloquent and inspiring.

Definitely one I’ll keep around for a while.

Audiobook: The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown
Read by: Edward Herrmann
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Content: It’s a book about the 1930s, rowing, and Nazism. It’s appropriate for anyone who’s interested in reading about those things, and can handle a long-ish book. It’s in the History section of the bookstore.

In the 1930s, 8-man rowing was one of the most popular sports (who knew). And the west coast — the University of California and University of Washington — was the hot-spot of the sport. And in the years leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Washtington team became the best of the world.

This is the story of how the Washington boys became the Olympic gold medalists.

I think this is one of those books that I really needed to listen to rather than read. While I think it would have been interesting, listening to it made it riveting. I enjoyed the stories of Joe Ranz — who ended up in the number 7 seat in the Olympic boat — and the other boys, and how they came to be at Washington. I enjoyed the conflict that coach Al Ulbrickson had with the California coach. I didn’t enjoy the rehashing of 1930s Berlin, but I think that’s because I listened to In the Garden of the Beasts and this is basically re-hashing much of that territory. For someone who is unfamiliar with Hitler’s rise, it’s pertinent information.

But what I  really loved was the bits about how the sculls were made, about the effort it took to row a race. And the races themselves? They had me glued to my seat, hooked on every word.

It was a remarkable event, a remarkable story. And I’m so glad I know about it, now.

Stupid Fast

by Geoff Herbach
ages: 14+
First sentence: “This could be a dark tale!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

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.