Lynn: Are you and your teen readers missing baseball like I am? I have just the book for you! Golden Arm (Houghton, 2020) by Carl Deuker will have you feeling as if you are sitting in the stands marking your scorecard.
Deuker is a master at sports writing and he has a sure winner with this new story about a talented underdog, Lazerus Weathers. Living in a Jet City trailer park, a gang and drug-ridden part of Seattle, Laz struggles with a stutter and learning disabilities, mostly letting his younger brother Antonio do his talking for him. But Laz shines when he takes the field where he is an immensely talented pitcher for his struggling high school team. The school has few resources, a lone coach, and barely enough players to field a team, but for Laz, baseball may be his only way out of Jet City. Laz is devastated when he learns that his high school is discontinuing baseball for his senior year but Laz’s talent has drawn the notice of coaches and players in the Seattle area. The father of one of Seattle’s most promising young players offers Laz a startling opportunity: come play for the most dominant high school team in the area, live with his family and help win a long-sought-after state title. For Laz, it is an opportunity to pursue his dream but it means leaving behind his mom and younger brother and trying to find his place in a new and unknown world. Antonio is being pulled into the dark world of drugs and crime—can Laz leave his brother and best friend behind?
The sports descriptions in this wonderful story are truly outstanding and Deuker had me forgetting I wasn’t watching actual games with a talented young player developing his skill and control. But it isn’t just the baseball that is so compelling in this book. Deuker hits all the bases with a really endearing team of characters, s suspenseful nail-biting plot, and a richly depicted setting. I loved every word from the opening sentence to the satisfying epilogue.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to love this story and I guarantee all readers will be rooting for Laz and his family. This book is a real winner!
Lynn: When book blurbs describe a book as “quirky” I’m a little cautious. Usually that means different and that can be good or bad. That was the case with Mike(Scholastic, 2019) by Andrew Norriss. Not only was “quirky” used but there is that eye-catching but odd cover. What sort of book was I getting? Well, I’m still asking myself that question AND I’m very willing to use the word quirky to describe it. But I’m also here to urge anyone and everyone to read this thoroughly unusual and extremely fascinating book.
The premise is this: teenage tennis prodigy Floyd Beresford’s future is clear: win the Under-18 championship, eventually turn pro, and make lots of money. But in the middle of a pivotal match, an odd boy strolls onto the court disrupting the game. Only it turns out that only Floyd can see him. Dr. Pinner, the kind psychologist, tells Floyd that Mike may be a projection of some unexpressed wish or need and Floyd realizes that he has no interest in tennis and especially no desire to spend his life playing it. Ah ha! But Mike comes back at intervals and sometimes someone else CAN see him and sometimes it involves things Floyd couldn’t possibly know. Who or what is Mike?
Short in length, matter-of-fact in tone, Mike breaks all the rules for a YA book as it jumps into Floyd’s early adult years, keeps kind and caring adults firmly in the story, and expects the reader to come to their own conclusions.
Norriss writes with a light touch creating a story that is easy to read but impossible to forget. He opens doors here that are impossible not to walk through. Charming, satisfying but also open-ended, this is a gem for readers looking for something different…and yes, quirky.
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!
Cindy and Lynn: How are your brackets doing? If you are a participant in the madness, we hope you filled out a Women’s NCAA basketball tourney bracket too! Their games are exciting as well! In the meantime, while you wait for another men’s or women’s game to tip, we are bringing you an interview with debut author Barbara Carroll Roberts. We featured her book, Nikki On the Line, recently but we wanted to know more. Read on for some women’s sports history you can share when you booktalk Roberts’ book.
1. Cindy: We love debut books. It’s fun to read an offering by a brand new author. What has the experience been like for you to BE the brand new author?
Barbara: It still feels a bit unreal. I worked on this book for many years, so to see it on bookstore and library shelves – or even better, in readers hands – is wonderful. The best part has been hearing from young readers who have enjoyed Nikki’s story.
2. Lynn: As I wrote in the review, it is rare to find a book about sports and a female athlete that actually has sports action in it. Nikki on the Line had such terrific and authentic game, practice, and tryout scenes. I also really loved the way you addressed the experiences of juggling practice schedules and homework and that struggle that many star players experience when they move to a higher level team with equal or better players. How did you decide to write a book with a sports focus and what personal experiences guided your writing?
Barbara: I love this question, because when I was trying to find books about girls who play sports for my sports-loving daughter, I noticed the same lack of actual sports action in the very few books I found that had a female protagonist and a “sports theme.” Instead, in most of the “sports books” about girls that I found, the sport was simply a background element of the story.
But my daughter and the other girls on her teams were passionate about playing sports. So I decided to write a book for and about those girls.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I began researching this book when I was in high school, playing competitive sports, feeling all the aches and pains of sore muscles and bruises, and juggling homework and family chores. But I also spent many years watching my son and daughter play team sports. Their experiences, and particularly the high levels of competition they faced, inspired much of the action in Nikki on the Line.
3. Cindy: When I booktalk Karen Blumenthal’s nonfiction book about Title IX, Let Me Play (S&S/Atheneum, 2005), my students don’t believe me when I tell them that as a forward playing junior high basketball in the early 1970s I wasn’t allowed to run the whole length of the court. We had 3 defensive players and 3 offensive players on each team that stayed at their respective ends of the court and only 2 guards on each team were able to run across the center line. What memories of playing sports in those days do you have?
Barbara: Oh, I love this question, too! I’ve also seen expressions of disbelief on the faces of young people when I tell them that “experts” used to believe that it was harmful for girls to run the length of a basketball court.
I started playing high school sports in 1970, two years before Title IX was passed. We wore our hideous, one-piece, seafoam-green cotton gym suits for every sport – no actual uniforms. We did play full-court basketball, but our team was only allowed to play in the gym if the boys weren’t using it. All the rest of the time, we had to practice and play outside on the blacktop. I grew up in northern California, so it wasn’t terribly cold in the winter, but it still made me angry that we were treated like second-class athletes.
I didn’t see a lot of changes right after Title IX passed in 1972, though our sports teams did get new gym suits. They were one-piece, pull-on polyester suits with gold and white stripes that snapped at the shoulders. They moved a lot better than our old cotton suits. But they were still hideous!
4. Lynn: The sports is a highlight but you do so much well in this story. I particularly appreciate the depiction of Nikki’s struggles with changing friendships and her relationship with her mother and little brother. Of course, we love the fact that Nikki’s mom is a reference librarian! Both Nikki’s mom and brother are such well developed and wonderful characters! Did you begin writing this story with both these characters so clearly defined or did they evolve as you worked on the book?
Barbara: Nikki’s brother, Sam, first “appeared” to me jumping on his pogo stick, asking a million questions, but he definitely evolved as I got farther into the book. I think the same is true of Nikki’s mom. I wanted her to be someone who wasn’t interested in sports, because I wanted Nikki’s achievements to be all her own, rather than influenced by a “sports parent.” I started out with a clear idea of who she was, but her character certainly developed and deepened as I kept working.
4.5Cindy & Lynn: Did you have a lovely cotton one-piece snap-up jump short gym outfit too?…Female athletes today don’t know how good they have it.
Barbara: I’ll answer that with a photo from my 1972 yearbook. I’m #11 and my sister, Kathleen Carroll Au, is #12. I cut the sleeves off my cotton gym suit to get a little more freedom of movement.
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!