November 18, 2017

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You Gotta Have Heart: Out-of-the-Park Baseball Novels For Middle Grade Readers

Unforgettable protagonists, narratives peppered with baseball action and atmosphere, and heart-stirring emotions make these recently released novels crackerjack reads. Though the characters struggle to overcome a variety of difficult circumstances and personal challenges, they all find strength in their love for the game and the way that it brings people together.

000SoarBrimming with honesty, humor, and hope, Joan Bauer’s Soar (Viking, Jan. 2016; Gr 4-6) will remain with readers long after the final out. Sixth-grader Jeremiah Lopper is crazy for baseball, and though cardiomyopathy and a heart transplant have left him too frail for much physical activity, he remains unreservedly passionate about the sport. When Walter, the computer-geek single-parent father who adopted him as a baby, accepts a temporary consulting job in Hillcrest, Ohio—famous for its baseball obsession and championship-winning high school program—Jeremiah is ecstatic. However, soon after their arrival, scandal rocks the small town.

A talented high school pitcher dies unexpectedly and the coach, known for his win-at-all-costs attitude, is accused of providing performance-enhancing drugs to the athletes. Utilizing the same blend of can-do spirit and positivity that has seen—and continues to see—him through his life-threatening health issues, along with his vast game knowledge and carefully honed coaching skills, Jerimiah rallies together a group of likeminded players and begins to rebuild the fizzled-out middle school team. His enthusiasm is contagious, and his efforts encourage a shell-shocked community to once again embrace the sport they love so dearly.

Jerimiah’s compelling narration reveals his eccentric yet endearing personality, his quick intelligence and quiet wisdom, his vulnerability and resiliency. Well-drawn supporting characters add depth to the tale, including winsome Walt, who bumbles his way through a blossoming romantic relationship with Jerimiah’s new cardiologist, and Franny, a new friend who grapples with her own traumas. Ethical questions about the importance of winning, and what individuals are willing to sacrifice to achieve it, are presented in an approachable and discussable manner. Poignant, funny, and uplifting, this book examines what it means to be a hero while also celebrating the ins and outs of America’s favorite pastime.

000 Heart of a ChampionIn Ellen Schwartz’s World War II-era novel, 10-year-old Kenny (Kenji) Sakamoto proves that like Jerimiah, he too possesses the Heart of a Champion (Tundra, Mar. 2016; Gr 4-6). It’s September of 1941 in Vancouver, Canada, and Kenny’s older brother, 16-year-old Mickey, has just led the Asahis, a Japanese-Canadian baseball team, to victory in the Pacific Northwest League championship. Though rheumatic fever has left Kenny with a possible heart murmur and restrictions on his physical activities, he dreams of one day becoming an Asahi, and secretly practices with Mickey.

Life is good in their mostly Japanese neighborhood, where Kenny lives next-door to his best friend Susana (their two families have shared a close relationship since the Bernsteins moved to Canada from Nazi Germany several years before). However, everything changes when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor: the Sakamotos and other Japanese Canadians are required to register as “enemy aliens;” curfews are imposed and cultural institutions are shut down; Kenny’s father is forced to close his camera shop and sent to a work camp in the British Columbia interior; and the rest of the family is forcibly relocated to an internment camp in the mountains. Faced with appalling living conditions and overwhelming despair, Mickey lashes out, injures his hand, and must be hospitalized. Kenny steps up to look after his mother and little sister, pitching in wherever possible and hauling buckets of water from a nearby creek to the cabin they share with another family. As hard work and hardship cause Kenny to grow in strength and self-confidence, he begins to search for a way to help Mickey recover and to lift the spirits of his fellow internees. He dreams of bringing baseball to the camp, but first he must find a way to transform a debris-strewn vacant lot into a playing field.

Engagingly portrayed baseball action and fervor keep the pages turning, as does Kenny’s gradual and believable growth from a quiet boy standing in his brother’s shadow to a confident youngster capable of great leadership, courage, and innovation. Schwartz prefaces the novel with an author’s note that provides historical context about the Asahi ball club and attitudes toward and treatment of Asian Canadians at the time. The straightforward narrative draws readers in and offers an intimate perspective on the experiences of Kenny and his family members as they endure prejudice, racism, and unjust treatment, and their possessions, freedoms, and dignity are gradually stripped away. The book’s important themes and historical events can inspire classroom discussion. Pair it with Marissa Moss’s nonfiction picture book, Barbed Wire Baseball (Abrams, 2013), which tells the inspiring story of Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura (1900-1968), a Japanese-American ballplayer imprisoned in an internment camp in Arizona during World War II, who also found a way to bring baseball—and hope—to those around him.

I000Hero Two Doors Downt’s 1948 in Brooklyn, New York, and Dodgers-loving Stevie Satlow, age eight, is thrilled to discover that his idol, Jackie Robinson, and his family, will be moving into his mostly Jewish Flatbush neighborhood. Stevie is absolutely star struck, and though his parents try to reel him in, it doesn’t take him long to strike up a friendship with the baseball legend who broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues. Ever patient and kindhearted, Jackie welcomes the boy into his home and the two families forge a close bond.

Stevie, who struggles to understand the prejudice that rules baseball (as well as parts of his own community) and wrestles with his own penchant for acting (or punching) without considering the consequences, soon discovers that there is much to learn from the quiet dignity and thoughtful compassion of The Hero Two Doors Down (Scholastic, Jan. 2016; Gr 4-6). Author Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, shares a rousing story based on fact (an afterward provides details about the events and the two families’ lifelong friendship, along with photographs). Flavored throughout with baseball action and history, this affecting novel incorporates themes of tolerance, dealing with conflict in a positive manner, and empathy and understanding into a heartwarming story of friendship that spans generational and racial divides.

distance to homeIn Jenn Bishop’s poignant and perceptive novel, an emotionally devasted 11-year-old girl adjusts to the loss of her beloved older sister and eventually finds solace in the game that she loves. Last summer, Quinnen Donnelly, now 11, was the star pitcher for her Little League team. This summer, her mitt lies dusty and forgotten under the seat of her father’s truck. Nothing is right in her family since Haley’s death nine months ago and nobody talks about it: Mom has quit her job teaching English at the community college; Dad mostly keeps to himself; and every time Quinnen wants to share a new thought or experience with her sister, it’s a searing realization that Haley is no longer there.

Hoping to revive Quinnen’s love for baseball, her parents have volunteered to host a player for the Tri-City Bandits, the minor league baseball club based in their Midwestern town. Though it takes her a while to warm up to their guest, a hotshot hurler from California, Quinnen strikes up a genuine friendship with his teammate Hector Padilla, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic. Struggling with challenges of his own, Hector eventually helps her find the courage to step back onto the mound. Chapters alternate between the current day and the summer of Haley’s death, gradually disclosing events and quietly building suspense. The strain placed on the girls’ relationship by Haley’s new boyfriend is effectively portrayed, as is the spiteful act that Quinnen will forever regret. Quinnen’s honest and heartfelt first-person narration pulls readers in as she begins to travel The Distance to Home (Knopf, June 2016; Gr 4-6), reconnecting to her parents, finding peace with the past, and rekindling her passion for baseball.

What does baseball—or any cherished sport or pastime—mean to you? Students can explore the featured texts to cite examples of how each character feels about baseball; the skills, strengths, and self-awareness they gain from the sport; and the way their passion for the game affects their actions and relationships. Have students compare and contrast the experiences and exploits of the characters in two or more books. These narratives are packed with baseball action, and youngsters can identity and define baseball terminology. Kids can also go deep to research and report on true-life game-changing individuals such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Roy Campanella, Hank Greenberg, Hank Aaron, and others, or write and/or speak about their own passions outside of the classroom.

Common Core State Standards: taken individually or grouped together, these titles can be used to incorporate numerous Common Core Standards, including the following: refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text (RL 4.1); cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text (RL 6.1); compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics (RL 5.9); write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly (W 5.2).

 

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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