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Monday, February 5, 2018

Sports Books About More Than Just Sports


Feinstein, John  (2017)  Backfield Boys  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017.

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            Opening Lines:  Tom Jefferson was staring into the rapidly setting sun, hands on hips, wondering what to do next.  It was just a game of touch football on a November afternoon, but he didn’t want to lose to the private school kids.
Tom “Bull’s Eye” Jefferson and Jason “White Lightning” Roddin have grown up in New York City as  friends since the early grades, partly based on their common love of football.  Tom is an excellent quarterback and Jason a remarkably fast wide receiver.  When they both get recruited to attend a prep school in the south that is known for its alumni who went on to play pro ball, they leap at the chance.  But when they get to the school they find it a much different place than they imagined.
The trouble starts when Tom is assigned to be a wide receiver and Jason is assigned to train with the quarterbacks.  When they bring up the mistake with the coaches, they are met with stubborn belligerence and punishment for questioning authority.  They had signed up to room together but find that they have been assigned other roommates.  Based on some of the comments from the coaches, they begin to wonder whether the problem might be that Tom is African-American and Jason is Jewish. 
Tom and Jason enlist the help of some new friends, including Jason’s roommate who, despite his stereotypical name Billy-Bob, is eager to help fight the discrimination; and also two local reporters.  With the reporters’ encouragement, Tom and Jason start to find out more about the school they are attending, including some interesting connections between the founder of the school and David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan.
While author John Feinstein is known for skillfully weaving together sports and mystery, this book proves he can also tackle social justice issues in realistic and inspiring ways.  This book models critical questioning and engages readers in thinking about social justice issues ranging from the prevalence of concussions in football to racist responses to interracial dating and systemic discrimination and how to combat it.  Feinstein includes a bit of civil rights history, religious discrimination, and even some presidential politics in the mix as well.  The final product is a highly engaging sports mystery that will get readers thinking about civil disobedience and working for justice. 
This would work best for middle school and high school.   Excellent book.
(Note, this review was originally written for the ALAN Review and appears on their webpage)



Crutcher, Chris (1995) Ironman.  New York:  HarperCollins.

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Opening Lines:  October 10.  Dear Larry [King],  At 4:30 each morning I waken to your voice.  I lie transfixed until five – when I haul my aching body out of the sack for another in a series of infinite workouts – listening to the wise men and loons of yesterdays airways deliver opinions on everything from the hole in the ozone to antidepressants (Dick Cavett and Patty Duke swear by them; Scientologists swear at them) to racism (You smell out racial prejudice like my dad smells out democrats) to the most effective methods to forever rid oneself of fat globules and cellulite (there aren’t any) to the whereabouts of Elvis (Jeffrey Dahmer ate him).
            This may be the best book I read in 2017.  Bo is an angry triathlete.  He became a triathlete when an argument with the track coach cased him to quit track.  His anger keeps getting him in trouble at school and he is close to being kicked out forever  His last chance is to take an after-school anger management class taught by Mr. Nak, an Asian transplant of a teacher form Texas – kind of a Japanese-American Cowboy.  In the anger management class, Bo meets a girl named Shelly, who is training for American Gladiator.  He also meets a collection of misfits who seem ready to disagree about anything with the slightest provocation.  There is lots in here about bigotry, generalizations, fear of what is different and learning to get along – but the most important part of the story is just that it is a really good story. 
The main conflict in the story really gets rolling when we realize that Bo’s Dad is trying to sabotage his chances of completing and Ironman run.  And, like most of Crutcher’s work, this book is not afraid to dig into some pretty deep territory. 
At one point in the book, Mr Nak has confronted Bo’s father and ends up explaining that he works with high school kids partly because, when he was drinking one night, he was driving his kids home and he flipped the car, killing his kids.  Bo’s father responds

“’So you figure you can pay for your sins working with other people’s children?  That’s admirable, but…’
Nak’s smile is humorless ‘You don’t pay for that kind of sin, sir.  You beg the universe to teach you the quality of mercy, is what you do, so you can get from one day to the next.’”

Of course, that quote doesn’t mean much when you don’t know the whole story behind it, so you may just have to take my word for it.  Ironmanis a powerful book about anger, friendship, romance, letting go, and triumphing.  You should read it.   

It would be a great book to study in high school, or to add to a high school library.  But it is important to know that there are some references to sex, though no explicit description, and that there are some vulgar words, though they are used sparingly.  I would argue, however, that the strong message of the book offsets those less savory aspects of it. 



Bauer, Joan (2016)  Soar.  New York:  Viking.

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Opening lines:  “I am probably twelve years old.  That’s what the doctors think.  I could have been born anywhere, but it was most likely Indianapolis, Indiana – at least, that’s where I decided I was born, because that was where I was found.  Specifically I was found at Computer Partners Ltd. In the snack room, right by the coffee pot.”
            In the times we are living in, there is a lot of excellent YA Literature that is giving us a chance to see into the lives of those who are victims of injustice, those whose lives are derailed by war, refugee status, misunderstanding, and struggle.  But sometimes we need a story about baseball and hope. 
Jerimiah was abandoned as a baby in an IT company breakroom.  He was found by a socially awkward computer programmer who eventually adopted him.  As he grew, his heart began to fail.  He received a heart transplant, but has to avoid too much exertion until his body fully accepts the heart.  Jerimiah’s favorite thing in the world is baseball.  So when Walt needs to take a temporary assignment in Hillcrest, Ohio, and when Jerimiah finds out that the town is obsessed with baseball, her persuades Walt to take him along.  Jerimiah dreams of managing a middle school team.
  When they arrive, he makes fast friends with Franny. Who lives next door, and soon finds out that Hillcrest’s baseball program is being dismantled because of a steroids scandal.   Will Jerimiah give up on his dream or find a way to bring baseball back, the way it is supposed to be.
 This is a great baseball book.  It is also a great story about a kid overcoming physical challenges.  But in this story, baseball doesn’t serve as a path to glory and victory so much as it is a path to community and restoration.  It reminds me of Jason Reynold’s Ghost in that way. 
This would make an amazing middle school read-aloud, or it could be studied as part of a sports unit.  It also would be a decent book to read aloud to a phys ed class in ten minute bits while they are stretching out in the beginning of class. 
Nothing offensive here. 




Sakai, Stan (1987) Usagi Yojimbo: Book 2 Samurai.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics

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Sakai, Stan (1989)  Usagi Yojimbo, Book 5.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics

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Opening panels::  This is from page 3, the first dialogue, just after Usagi duels against a rhino.

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Usagi is a rabbit who trains with a discredited Sensai (who is an anthropomorphic lion) and becomes a samurai, then when the feudal lord he works for is killed, Usagi becomes a masterless samurai or Ronin who wanders the countryside writing wrongs and fighting corruption, bullying, and evil. 
Usagi is an honorable rabbit, avoiding violence whenever possible, but fighting for the poor and against those who are dishonorable.  Part of the joy of these books, though, is that Sakai has crafted a world which is a wonderful place to spend time in. It is detailed, often beautiful, and besides the anthropomorphic animals who live within an feudal Japanese culture and seem to be the dominant life form, there are also these cute little tiny brontosauruses that pop up everywhere (sort of like rabbits do in our world).

Sakai also has a delightful sense of humor.  In book 5, Usagi encounters Lone Goat and Kid, a clear reference to the classic series of comics about Lone Wolf and Cub.  Throughout the books I found myself chuckling when Usagi beats incredible odds against him, usually through cleverness and hard earned skill, and those who have done wrong to others, get what is coming to them.  It is nice to spend some time in a world where justice prevails and the little guy comes out on top.

Plus, there is something awesome about a rabbit in samurai armor.

And yes, you are right.  This book is maybe a stretch in terms of being related to sports.  But I would encourage you to read it and correct me if I am wrong, but Usagi’s system of honor looks to me an awful lot like good sportsmanship.  These books could be read by a middle school phys ed class and would lead to a great discussion of sportsmanship that goes beyond the usual lip service it receives.
            
These books would be ideal for fourth grade and up.  These is some violence here, but nothing gory.  In a couple of the stories, Usagi does drink Saki (wine), but never to excess and he seems to usually prefer tea.  Sometimes the bad guys are shown to be drunk, but the story dose not dwell on it.


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