Game Changer: A Visit with Tommy Greenwald

Cindy: An email from my Scholastic Book Fair rep diverted my spring break reading this year. Would I be able to host an author event with Tommy Greenwald the week I returned from vacation to fill in for another school that had to cancel? Why, yes. Yes I could. I put aside the adult book I was reading (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and bought a copy of Tommy’s latest book, Game Changer (Amulet, 2019), and read it on the flight home. I already had the book in my middle school libraries, but the attractive cover had kept it in circulation and out of my hands. I’m glad I have the extra copy as this is going to be a popular booktalk next fall.

Eighth grade football player Teddy is hospitalized in a coma after a head injury during a summer training camp. The story plays out in Teddy’s inner thoughts, dialogue between hospital visitors, texts, newspaper articles, counselor transcripts, and a social media online forum. This format exposes truths, rumors, opinions, and secrets as the mystery of what really happened to Teddy is unraveled. Greenwald, a football fan himself, explores the dangers of the sport along with the traditions of hazing in this all too realistic portrayal of how the game is often played. Lots of white space (due to the multimedia format), in addition to the many discussion points and the mystery make this a great choice for reluctant readers. The pages turn quickly as the truth comes to light.

Tommy’s presentation to our 6th-8th grade students was fun. His idea for the Charlie Joe Jackson series came from his three sons, Charlie, Joe, and Jack, non-readers all. As you can see in the photo, he tried to bribe his boys with ice cream. I don’t know if the book (or the ice cream) worked on his kids, but Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is popular with legions of middle grade readers. He had our students laughing while also thinking about the writing process. It’s always heartening when kids realize that they are not the only ones who are asked to edit their writing. We didn’t have much time to prepare for the visit, but all of Tommy’s books are in circ now and will be for awhile. Author visits are so beneficial for promoting reading and to remind students that REAL PEOPLE write the books they are reading, or perhaps NOT reading. 😉 Thanks, Tommy!

Nikki on the Line: A Basketball Novel That Measures Up

Cindy: March Madness is upon us and that always means a basketball book recommendation from Bookends! This year, we are excited to have one with a female player, a rare find, especially one with basketball play as descriptive and exciting as that in Nikki on the Line (Little, Brown, 2019) by Barbara Carroll Roberts. Many players, female and male, will relate to Nikki’s dawning realization that her status as a premier player is on the line as she moves up to an elite club team in 8th grade where she is just one of many talented players. Nikki is forced to find where she fits now, both on the team, and with her friends, along with handling the expense of the team and additional struggles at home and at school with a troublesome genetics-related science project. Roberts not only understands basketball but also middle school girls.

I sat a mean bench on my school basketball team in the 70s
and read lots of basketball fiction featuring boys,
but this is the book I wish had been on my school library shelves.

The scenes at the tryouts, the grueling practices, and the exciting games are full of basketball written by someone who knows the drill. I sat a mean bench on my school basketball team in the 70s, and read lots of basketball fiction featuring boys, but this is the book I wish had been on my school library shelves.

P.S. Go Indiana Hoosiers!!!!

Lynn:  One of my pet peeves is a sports book with little sports action, something that happens way too often in sports books featuring girls. So this terrific book has made me very happy! As Cindy says, not only are the game scenes great, but Roberts captures the tryouts, practices, drills, and aching muscles too.  Present, too, are the related experiences of the too-intense parents, fierce competition, and the significant expenses of these elite travel teams.

While the sports action was a highlight for me, there are a lot of other elements to admire. The characters are richly developed, especially Nikki, who is struggling to balance school, family responsibilities, and her practice schedule as well as new pressures on friendships and family finances. Nikki’s family is a charming feature and I loved her research librarian mother who is baffled by her daughter’s love of sports and her super high-energy little brother and his pogo stick. 

A sweet first crush, the minefield of middle school, and the challenges of evolving friendship provide additional elements that keep the pages turning for readers not basketball-obsessed. This is a dynamite debut and I can’t wait to see what this author does next!

P.S. Go Purdue Boilermakers!!!!!!

Fate or Chance? Two New Books Explore What Happens Because…

Lynn: Do you believe in fate or coincidence? Maybe you think it’s a divine hand at work, or pure coincidence or perhaps there really is a touch of magic loose in the universe. No matter which way you lean, these are fun concepts to play with, especially in books. Early 2019 has brought us two delightful books that will get kids wondering about fate, magic, and connections.

A Drop of Hope by Keith CalabreseFirst up is a charming debut middle school book, A Drop of Hope (Scholastic, 2019) by Keith Calabrese. Take a town down on its luck, a boy new in town who has made his dying grandfather a promise, a girl whose family has come unglued, and a boy who secretly does chores for his neighbor. Add the town legend of a wishing well, a chance eavesdropping, and a spur-of-the-moment decision and watch what can happen to an entire town from one act of kindness.

Calabrese’s intricate plot traces the ripple effect of seemingly unrelated actions and individuals on the fortunes of an entire town. It’s a little like watching a Rube Goldberg invention: wacky, convoluted, highly entertaining, and it leaves you cheering at the result. There is a large cast of characters to keep track of but Calabrese manages to give them all a separate voice and readers will care about them all. Told in short individual vignettes, the story moves quickly, gaining speed as the connections begin to multiply.

I was given this arc at ALA and the publisher rep said it was a story of “hope that wasn’t cheezy,” and she was so right! It’s also a story of the mysterious forces that connect us all. Give this to a good reader looking for something really different.

Cindy: Because a 4th grader was ahead in her work and because an elementary school librarian gave her jobs and because the girl had a hard time choosing between many subjects she loved, she became a librarian so she could dabble in them all. And over time, because she worked very hard, and she was lucky, she was chosen to serve on award committees and to review and blog for Booklist magazine. Because of that, books like Because (Hyperion, 2019) by Mo Willems and Amber Ren arrive on her doorstep waiting for her to read and promote. Mo writes the “score” here, telling the story of how chance, fate, coincidence, passion, hard work, and serendipity and, yes, perhaps a touch of mystery, results in a young girl finding her passion in a career as a musician and conductor. Amber Pen provides the “performance,” the illustrations, to this moving story of how small moments can result in life-changing opportunities. A colorful trail of musical notes winds through the pages that start and end with musical scores. The opening piece is Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B-minor, and the closing piece was composed for the book by Hilary Purrington. Have a listen.