February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Olympics Are Coming! Great Sports Reads for Teens

It’s going to be a championship summer for sports lovers. In less than three months,  the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in in Rio de Janeiro (August 5–21) launches, and the Olympic Flame has already arrived in Brazil, where it will be proudly carried by 12,000 athletes, celebrities, and ordinary folks with amazing stories to over 300 cities. In addition, public libraries across the nation are gearing up for their summer reading programs, and the theme chosen by the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) is “Wellness, Fitness, and Sports” (the slogan for teens is “Get in the Game: Read”).

Young adults can jump right into the action by enjoying these sports-themed novels. Whether they are playing for fun or chasing an Olympic dream, the protagonists featured here come up against a heart-pounding array of tragedies and triumphs, both on and off the field. Percolating with athletic action, these titles also include smartly treated coming-of-age themes that will captivate sports fanatics and couch potatoes alike.

Winners On and Off the Pitch

Alexander_BookedNick Hall, almost 13, loves to play, watch, and daydream about soccer, and he and his best friend Coby can’t wait to compete in the prestigious invitation-only Dallas Cup tournament, even though they will be on different teams. Bright but no stellar student, Nick is frustrated by the expectations of his linguistics-professor father, verbomaniac and author of Weird and Wonderful Words, who insists that his son spends time each day expanding his vocabulary by perusing the dictionary’s pages. At school, Ms. Hardwick is always hassling him for daydreaming in English class. Then there’s Mr. Mac, the red-mohawk-wearing and “corny-joke-cracking” school librarian who is determined to get the right volume into Nick’s reluctant-reader hands. Who wouldn’t feel Booked (HMH, 2016; Gr 6-10)? In addition to deciphering his thorny relationship with words (he begins by defining unfamiliar but delectable terms in humorously expressive footnotes), Nick also deals with his limerence for a girl named April, a nasty pair of bullies, and the sudden separation of his parents. Kwame Alexander’s sparkling free-verse novel brims with vibrantly written soccer scenes, heartfelt coming-of-age themes, and an eloquent blend of wit and wisdom.

Klass_LosersA new policy has been adopted at Jack Logan’s sports-obsessed New Jersey school (aka Muscle High): all seniors will be required to join at least one school athletic team and participate the entire season. Though descended from a family of outstanding competitors, Jack has found neither the right sport nor the drive to achieve great things on the playing field. He and several other nonconformists decide to start a third-string soccer squad that will focus more on hanging out with friends and having fun than on crushing opponents. Made up of misfits and oddballs and coached by the school’s philosophizing part-time Latin teacher, the team, nicknamed The Losers, triumphantly fulfills its goal of being spectacularly inept, to the great displeasure of the Freemont’s sports-fanatical principal and jock-venerating culture. Tensions escalate when the media takes up the story, igniting a frenzy of cheering supporters and disgruntled (sometimes violent) opposition. And maybe most confusing of all, Jack discovers that he has a talent for the game and—to the consternation of his teammates—a sudden desire to excel.

Deftly combining chuckle-inducing humor with eye-opening insights, David Klass’s Losers Take All (Farrar, 2015; Gr 7 Up) tackles themes that range from personal (first love, struggling with parental expectations, defining one’s identity) to society-wide (bullying, tolerance, what it truly means to be a winner).

Soar High, Stay Grounded

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. JohnstonE.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Dutton, 2016; Gr 9 Up) draws subtle and cleverly imagined inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but the challenges faced by the book’s protagonist are, tragically, very timely. It’s senior year, and Hermione Winters is at the top of her game. As cocaptain of the cheerleading squad, the only truly competitive team in her otherwise sports-challenged small town high school in Ontario, she can’t wait to get to pre-season camp and dig into the tough conditioning and hard work needed to guarantee a national championship for the Fighting Golden Bears. Everything changes when she is drugged and sexually assaulted during a party at camp. With no memory of events, and no clear DNA evidence left behind, Hermione feels oddly disconnected from the trauma. Rumors are flying at school, everyone seems to be treating her differently, and tough choices loom, particularly when her pregnancy test comes back positive. With the help of her passionately steadfast best friend Polly, her parents and therapist, and the strength she finds in her heart and her sport, Hermione gradually and painfully learns to steer through this new reality and once again take charge of her life. Written in a powerful and poignant first-person narration, this unforgettable novel is unflinchingly honest and ultimately uplifting.

tumblingCaela Carter’s Tumbling (Viking, June 2016; Gr 6-10) is set at the USA Gymnastics Women’s Olympic Trials where 12 elite athletes put everything on the line to vie for five available spots. The story spans the grueling two-day meet and is told from the alternating viewpoints of five fierce competitors. Grace, 17, whose Chinese mother left when she was nine, is a world champion but struggles to live up to the expectations of her white coach father and deal with the loneliness brought on by her razor-sharp focus. Athletically built Leigh, 16, is wrestling with body image issues (Sports Illustrated called her “the linebacker” of the U.S. National Team) and determined to keep the fact that she’s a lesbian secret. Outlier Monica, 15, is performing better than expected, but may allow her lack of self-confidence and her opponents’ mind games to derail her. After losing an Olympic slot four years ago due to a change in age restrictions, Wilhelmina, an African American 19-year-old, will do anything to realize her dream. Camille, 20, has worked hard to launch a comeback, but is she doing it to please her mother or herself?

The vibrantly related gymnastics action unfolds rotation by rotation, conveying a clear sense of the sacrifices made, grueling training, and intense commitment required to compete at this level. As the standings change and then change again, the hidden vulnerabilities and inner strengths of the characters are laid bare. Readers will be drawn into the lives of these athletes and root for each one to find success.

flipsideWith her dream of Olympic gold looking more and more attainable, Charlie Ryland is training harder than ever. She remains committed to keeping the gymnastics part of her life separate and secret from her existence as a sophomore at a public high school, where she is known as Charlotte and tries to hide behind her glasses and long blonde hair. It’s tough to keep up this balancing act and Charlie knows she has no time for a boyfriend, but when she meets the funny, smart, and attractive Bobby Singh, she just can’t stop thinking about him. And though prom is a week before the Olympic trials, what could it hurt to tell a few lies, surreptitiously buy a dress, and accept his invitation to go? When disaster strikes during the dance, Charlie’s two worlds collide. Not only is her secret out at school, but she must also try to explain her deception to her friends, family, and coach. In addition, an injury threatens her performance and just might ruin her shot at an Olympic spot. In The Flip Side (S. & S., June 2016; Gr 7 Up), Shawn Johnson, who won Olympic gold at age 15, brings to life the day-to-day hard work, tough mental discipline, and high-stakes pressure that come part and parcel with being an elite gymnast, while also touching upon the emotions and challenges experienced by any teen.

Changing Lanes

amatterofheartSwimming is everything for 16-year-old Abby Lipman, and her most recent time for the 100-meter freestyle is not only a personal best, but also puts her on track to qualify for the Olympics. Her father, a world-class backstroker whose career was cut short by injury, is ecstatic. With the qualifying meet just weeks away, Abby has a fainting spell and her coach insists that she get checked out. She discovers that she has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that often causes the sudden death of teen athletes. Beta-blockers will keep her heart rate within a safe range, but will also make it impossible to swim fast. Not taking the pills means risking death. Suddenly, her life, her dreams, and even her relationships are in a shambles: her father is in denial; Connor, her super-competitive swimmer boyfriend, no longer wants to be near her; and she’s worried that her best friend Jen is gunning for her place on the team. Meanwhile Alec Mendoza, an off-putting but frustratingly attractive teammate, proves to be a stalwart friend (and love interest). Abby’s first-person narration vividly reveals her state of mind as she struggles to fathom the diagnosis, contemplates how much she is willing to risk to attain her dreams, and begins to redefine herself without competitive swimming. Packed with poolside perspectives, Amy Fellner Dominy’s A Matter of Heart (Delacorte, 2015; Gr 9 Up) also includes themes of searching for identity and recovering from loss that will speak to all teens.

goldfishA prologue sets the scene for Nat Luurtsema’s laugh-out-loud funny Goldfish (Feiwel & Friends, June 2016; Gr 7 Up). Louise Brown, 15, is swimming the individual medley, hoping to qualify for Great Britain’s Olympic team. Her strokes are clean, her rhythm is on, and she thinks she’s having the race of her life—until she touches the pool wall and realizes she’s come in dead last. Her best buddy Hannah makes the cut for training camp, leaving Lou on her own for the first time ever. She wallows away the rest of the summer at home in Essex with her divorced parents (Dad is out of work and has moved back in with Mum) and beautiful older sister. Shunned by her callous coach and teammates, the gawky (“5’10” and still growing”) and socially inept Lou flounders around when school starts, feeling like a failure and having no idea what to do with her time. When three popular boys request her expertise in putting together a synchronized swim routine to audition for Britain’s Hidden Talent, she decides to dive right in. Their outrageous and outlandish adventures lead Lou to new friendships as well as a truer understanding of her identity and self-worth. The chatty first-person narrative sprints along with snappy observations, good-naturedly self-deprecating attitude, slapstick escapades, and charmingly multi-dimensional characterizations.

In—and Out of—the Paint

this is the partTrue-to-life tragedy and heartening humor coalesce in Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s unforgettable This Is the Part Where You Laugh (Knopf, 2016; Gr 10 Up). Though barred last year for punching out a trash-talking opponent on the basketball court, Travis hopes to be the top point guard in his Western Oregon high school league—if he’s allowed to play sophomore year. He plans to spend the summer conditioning and running drills with his best friend and teammate Creature, trying to cheer up his terminally ill Grandma, and keeping his nose clean. But despite his good intentions, the hard realities of Travis’s life are unrelenting, and unwise choices and uncontrollable impulses repeatedly land him in trouble. When Creature is stabbed by a gang member during a pick-up basketball game, things spiral out of control. Left damaged or abandoned by the adults in their lives, the teen characters are delightfully unique, breathtakingly multi-dimensional, and realistically flawed. Whether searching nearby homeless camps for his heroin-addicted mother or gently caretaking his grandmother, Travis exhibits compassion and consideration; at other times, he lashes out with reckless violence. Creature, who has also done time in juvie, has his sights set on a D1 scholarship and works diligently on his novel, a series of lyrically passionate and inventively erotic love letters to long-dead Russian princesses. Travis’s love interest, spirited and athletic Natalie, struggles with her own anger issues. Though there are no easy answers or happy endings, this poignant and surprising novel celebrates human resiliency and ends on a hopeful note.

True Grit

boys in the boatDaniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat (2015; Gr 6 Up), adapted from the adult title of the same name (Viking, 2013), tells the true story of how nine working-class young men from the University of Washington’s crew team navigated through numerous challenges and setbacks to win gold at the 1936 Olympics. Painting a distinctive picture of the difficulties and despair caused by the Great Depression, the well-researched text centers around Joe Rantz, a poor youngster from a small town who endured one family tragedy after another and was left to fend for himself at age 15. Under the direction of UW coach Al Ulbrickson and famed British boatbuilder George Pocock, Rantz and his mostly inexperienced but incredibly hardworking cohorts—many of whom had earned their muscles laboring as loggers, fishermen, farmers, or roadbuilders—learn how to row and how to pull together as a team. Suspense builds slowly and satisfyingly as the squad takes on more established rivals from the University of California and the east coast to vie for an Olympic spot. Information about the sport, economic and social conditions in the U.S., and the 1936 Berlin games (keenly observed by Adolf Hitler) are deftly woven into the text, which includes numerous black-and-white photos. Filled with neck-and-neck race action, this rousing tale about a bunch of underdogs with the hearts of champions is informative and inspiring.

Publication Information

ALEXANDER, Kwame. Booked. HMH. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544570986; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780544787711.

BROWN, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation). Viking. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780451475923; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698197596.

CARTER, Caela. Tumbling. Viking. June 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780451473004; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9780698183360.

DOMINY, Amy Fellner. A Matter of Heart. Delacorte. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780385744430; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375991660; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780385744447; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780385389938.

HOFFMEISTER, Peter Brown. This Is the Part Where You Laugh. Knopf. May 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553538106; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780553538113.

JOHNSON, Shawn. The Flip Side. S. & S. with Amy Sonnichsen. June 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481460217; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781481460231.

JOHNSTON, E. K. Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Dutton. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781101994580; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781101994610.

KLASS, David. Losers Take All. Farrar. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374301361; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780374301378.

LUURTSEMA, Nat. Goldfish. Feiwel & Friends. June 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250089182; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781250089199.


 For middle grade baseball novels, see Joy Fleishhacker’s “You Gotta Have Heart.”

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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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