by Rebecca Hogue Wojahn
Upper elementary school through high school
Everyone’s familiar with the sports story formula: an underdog (usually male) overcomes obstacles but goes on to win despite his many personal hardships. The story is also a larger metaphor—usually the protagonist’s victory is due in large part to his strong sense of morals and fair play. This formula is worn and clichéd but has lasted because of its appeal with readers, particularly kids. Because recent reports state that reading levels are declining, there’s a good chance that many of the 40 million kids playing sports in the United States are not cracking open books on their own. Sharing literature about their favorite pastime can be a great way to get them reading.
And not all sports books are ploddingly predictable. The best sports novels are really about something more: about learning about one’s limits, or trying one’s best, or dealing with others’ expectations. Read on for recommended books about aspiring young athletes; these stories will take readers on a surprise ride where the hero isn’t always a guy, doesn’t always win, and doesn’t always play fair. (Note that an article about baseball appeared previously in Book Links. See "Books and Baseball: America's Favorite Pastimes" [ HTML] or [ PDF])
Alphin, Elaine Marie.
The Perfect Shot. 2005. 360p. Carolrhoda, $16.95 (1-57505-862-6).
Gr. 7–12. A year ago, Brian’s girlfriend, Amanda, was murdered. Now, her father is on trial for her death. As hard as he tries to focus on basketball and winning, Brian is haunted by the thought that he may hold the knowledge that could set Amanda’s father free. When he is assigned to a history project on lynching, he realizes that the justice system may not always work the way it should.
The Rhyming Season. 2005. 224p. Clarion, $16 (0-618-46948-6).
Gr. 9–12. Brenda has always played basketball—and followed in the footsteps of her older brother, Benny, their small logging town’s star basketball player. But Benny died in a car accident last year, the sawmill is closing, and it’s up to Brenda, her team, and her new coach, with his unusual methods of combining poetry and basketball, to inspire her family and community.
Baskin, Nora Raleigh.
Basketball (or Something Like It). 2005. 176p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-06-059610-4).
Gr. 6–9. This story of a sixth-grade traveling basketball team based in an affluent suburb smoothly unfolds through the perspectives of four central characters. The teammates’ basketball skills vary, but each player manages to triumph in some way.
The Moves Make the Man. 1984. 320p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-447022-9).
Gr. 7–up. In this Newbery Honor Book, Jerome, a basketball star and the only black student in his high school, makes friends with Bix, an emotionally troubled white student. Jerome teaches Bix the game, and through it Bix comes to terms with his mentally disturbed mother, and his father, who doesn’t want him to see her.
Night Hoops. 2000. 256p. Houghton, $15 (0-395-97936-6); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-447275-2).
Gr. 7–11. Sophomore Nick Abbott deals with his parents’ divorce by perfecting his game as point guard on the high school basketball team. His play is enriched by practicing with his troubled teammate and neighbor, Trent.
Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery. 2005. 256p. Knopf, $16.95 (0-375-83168-1); Yearling, paper, $6.50 (0-553-49460-0). Also available in an audio edition.
Gr. 6–9. Steven wins a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans as a prize for the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association’s contest. Once there, he and his cowinner, Susan, overhear a plot to throw the games, and they set out to discover who is blackmailing a basketball player. Feinstein follows up with Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open (Knopf, August 2006), in which a tennis star is kidnapped on her way from the locker room to the stadium.
Harkrader, L. D.
Airball: My Life in Briefs. 2005. 208p. Roaring Brook/Deborah Brodie, $15.95 (1-59643-060-5).
Gr. 4–7. Kirby Nickel goes out for the seventh-grade basketball team in order to meet the man he thinks is his father. But when Coach distributes invisible uniforms, Kirby wonders what he’s gotten himself into. Harkrader offers an amusing portrayal of a small-town community’s devotion to basketball in this entertaining story.
Myers, Walter Dean.
Slam! 1996. 288p. Scholastic, $16.95 (0-590-48667-5); Signature, paper, $5.99 (0-590-48668-3).
Gr. 8–12. Greg “Slam” Harris was a big star at his old school in Harlem, but at his new magnet school for the arts, his academics start to get in the way. Suddenly, he has to learn how to get along with a very different crowd, something that’s not easy when he’s dealing with things like his grandmother’s illness and his father’s drinking. Luckily, he still has basketball.
Cruise Control. 2004. 160p. HarperTempest, $15.99 (0-06-623960-5); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-447377-5). Also available in an audio edition.
Gr. 7–10. In this companion novel to Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral (HarperCollins, 2000), Paul is the three-sport varsity player whose younger brother, Shawn, has cerebral palsy and can’t walk or talk. Shawn’s condition has affected the family deeply; their father left years ago, and Paul is still full of anger about it. He must face his emotions and come to terms with his family before his anger destroys his gifts.
Black and White. 2005. 160p. Viking, $15.99 (0-670-06006-2).
Gr. 9–12. Marcus and Eddie are known as Black and White at school because they are able to get past their racial differences and be best friends both on and off the basketball court. But when they get caught for committing an armed robbery, their experiences with the justice system vary greatly based on race.
Playing without the Ball. 2000. 224p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-440-22972-3).
Gr. 7–11. Seventeen-year-old Jay McLeod lives on his own above a bar—his mom left when he was nine and his dad took off last year. When he tries out and is cut from the high-school basketball team, he joins a church-sponsored team. There he finds a friend and love, a team that challenges him, and a place he belongs.
Getting in the Game. 2005. 144p. Roaring Brook/Deborah Brodie, $15.95 (1-59643-044-3).
Gr. 5–8. Thirteen-year-old Joanna Giordano plays hockey, but the only team available is the one at the middle school—and it’s for boys. Despite discouragement from everyone, Joanna fights to play and makes the cut. Still, life gets complicated with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease and problems at school.
Open Ice. 2005. 288p. Random/Wendy Lamb, $15.95 (0-385-74675-X).
Gr. 9–12. For Nick Taglio, hockey is everything—his life revolves around it. He has been playing since he was a toddler, and now he’s the star of his hockey team. But when Nick gets one concussion too many, he is told hockey’s over for him, and he must find out what there is in life beyond the game.
Iceman. 1994. 192p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-447114-4).
Gr. 8–12. Eric is a star hockey player, nicknamed Iceman because of the coolness and indifference he displays after ruthlessly bloodying the other players on the ice—even his own teammates are scared of him. What they don’t know is that Eric doesn’t want to play—he is really searching for a place to be loved and to belong. Eventually, he finds it in an unlikely place—with a recluse at a mortuary.
Tangerine. 1998. 304p. Harcourt, $17 (0-15-201246-X); Scholastic/Signature, paper, $5.99 (0-439-28603-4).
Gr. 7–10. Paul and his dysfunctional family have just moved to Tangerine, Florida. Despite being legally blind since an ominous accident when he was little, Paul tries out for the school soccer team. But it’s his relationship with his football star brother that puts Paul and his new friends in danger.
Soccer Chick Rules. August 2006. 160p. Roaring Brook/Deborah Brodie, $16.95 (1-59643-137-9).
Gr. 6–9. Thirteen-year-old Tess is a devoted soccer player and loves basketball, too, but what will happen if the local tax levy to support school sports programs doesn’t pass? During a rewarding soccer season, Tess and her friends become involved in politics as they try to help get the levy passed.
The Million Dollar Kick. 2001. 208p. Hyperion, $15.99 (0-7868-0764-4); paper, $5.99
Gr. 5–8. Thirteen-year-old Whisper Nelson, a self-professed soccer hater, wins a slogan contest and a chance to kick against a professional goalkeeper, with a $1 million prize for a successful goal. Gutman captures Whisper’s pain and dry wit in this strong story about a teen getting through tough times.
Home of the Braves. 2002. 320p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $18 (0-374-39963-8); HarperTempest, paper, $6.99 (0-06-053171-1).
Gr. 8–12. Joe Brickman is looking forward to his senior year—especially playing on the soccer team and dating Kristine. But when a new player arrives from Brazil, both those possibilities are threatened for Joe. To make matters worse, the rivalry between the football players and the soccer players is turning violent.
Shots on Goal. 1997. 160p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-679-88671-0).
Gr. 7–10. Sophomore Bones Austin and his team have to learn to play together like a team if they’re going to make the district playoffs. But that’s hard to do when Bones has a crush on his teammate and best friend Joey’s girlfriend. Now, it seems he and Joey are at odds in every aspect of their lives.
Carter, Alden R.
Love, Football, and Other Contact Sports. 2006. 272p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1975-4).
Gr. 8–11. This dynamic collection of short stories, which revolves around Argyle West High School’s football team, features an ensemble cast of students during their sophomore, junior, and senior years.
Roughnecks. 1997. 256p. Harcourt, $15 (0-15-201433-0); paper, $6 (0-15-202200-7).
Gr. 8–12. The state football championship is more than just a team rivalry for Travis Cody. It’s a chance to meet his rival, Jericho Grooms, face-to-face and to redeem himself for letting Jericho burn him on a play that cost his team an undefeated season.
Crackback. 2005. 224p. Scholastic, $16.99 (0-439-69733-6).
Gr. 7–11. The start to the football season is nothing like 16-year-old Miles imagined. His favorite coach is replaced by one who has it in for him, he can’t do anything to please his father, and to top it all off, his best friend and teammate is pressuring him to take performance-enhancing drugs. Miles has to decide how much football—and winning—means to him.
Running Loose. 1983. 192p. Greenwillow, $18.99 (0-688-02002-X); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-009491-5).
Gr. 7–12. Louie Banks has it all, including a place on the football team and a loving girlfriend, but then everything falls apart. He quits the team because his coach encourages dirty plays, and his girlfriend, Becky, is killed in a car accident. Now, he must somehow endure his senior year.
Dygard, Thomas J.
Second Stringer. 1998. 192p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-688-15981-8).
Gr. 6–12. Kevin Taylor, second stringer, gets an opportunity to star when the first-string quarterback injures his knee. Suddenly, Kevin must find the confidence and strength to be a leader both on and off the field.
Lee, Marie G.
Necessary Roughness. 1996. 240p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-447169-1).
Gr. 7–12. When Chan Kim and his family move from Los Angeles to a small town in Minnesota, his life is turned upside down. He has never felt like an outsider before, but now he and his sister are the only Asian kids in town. In an effort to fit in, Chan, a soccer standout at his old school, goes out for football.
Tackling Dad. 2005. 144p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-06-000051-1).
Gr. 5–8. Thirteen-year-old Cassie’s dad was a professional football player, so Cassie decides that trying out for her middle-school team is the perfect way to get his attention away from his new wife and back to her—after all, she used to play in the Pee Wee Leagues. But her father opposes her playing, much to her surprise, and it’s up to her to convince him that it’s something she can and wants to do.
Inexcusable. 2005. 176p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95 (0-689-84789-0).
Gr. 9–12. Football player and senior Keir has always been able to rationalize his actions. After all, he’s basically a good guy, so of course it’s not his fault when he cripples an opposing player on the field, or commits vandalism. But his rationalizations get out of control on his graduation night, when he date-rapes a girl he thinks he loves.
Three Clams and an Oyster. 2002. 224p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-37526-7).
Gr. 7–12. Old friends and flag-football teammates are one player short for their four-man team. Their original “oyster” died a few years back, and his replacement would rather party than play. As the three remaining members consider their choices for a fourth, they have to reevaluate who they are and what they want.
Adler, C. S.
Winning. 1999. 144p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-65017-8).
Gr. 6–8. Thirteen-year-old Vicky desperately wants to make the eighth-grade tennis team. She works to perfect her game but finds that her best friend, Reggie, is jealous of Vicky’s budding friendships with teammates. Vicky’s distress at the potential loss of Reggie’s friendship is magnified by her uncertainty over how to handle a tennis partner who expects Vicky to cheat.
Eulo, Elena Yates.
Mixed-Up Doubles. 2003. 208p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1706-9).
Gr. 8–11. The family that plays together doesn’t necessarily stay together in this funny, but bittersweet, tale of divorce, narrated by 14-year-old, middle-child Hank, who hopes to bring his parents back together through a shared love of tennis.
The Whistling Toilets. 1996. 256p. Farrar/Aerial, paper, $5.95 (0-374-48369-8).
Gr. 7–10. When narrator Stan Claxton’s best friend, Ginny, a rising tennis star at 15, is sent home to Seattle for the summer, her parents hire her friend and former partner to coach her through a tournament—and to jog her out of a two-month, career-threatening slump.
Amazing Grace. 2005. 288p. Hyperion, $15.99 (0-7868-5690-4); paper, $5.99 (0-7868-
5691-2). Paperback available July 2006.
Gr. 7–9. When teenage tennis phenomenon Grace “Ace” Kincaid calls her mom from the U.S. Open, asking to retire, things move fast. Sporting a new hairstyle, a pierced nose, and a new name—Emily O’Brien—the girl is spirited away by Aunt Ava to a remote cabin in Alaska to avoid the paparazzi. The former pampered star is ready for a real life, including a budding friendship with a local boy named Teague.
Track and Field
Moon Runner. 2005. 112p. Candlewick, $15.99 (0-7636-2117-X).
Gr. 3–5. Mina has never been into sports—that’s her friend Ruth’s thing. So when Mina finds out she can run and she loves it, it takes her and all of her “Fellow Friends” by surprise. Then she finds herself choosing between Ruth and winning the 50-meter race when Coach pits them against each other.
Sis, Deans. Racing the Past. 2001. 160p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-6635-7); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-
Gr. 4–8. Eleven-year-old Ricky’s abusive father has died in a car accident, and Ricky is secretly glad he is gone—he doesn’t miss the harsh words and blows. But the kids on his school bus taunt him, and inevitably he gets into a fight. In an effort to escape them, Ricky starts running the three miles to school. At first, it’s hard, but eventually it gets easier, and Ricky soon faces the ultimate challenge—racing the bus to school. For another title about a solitary runner, see Cynthia Voigt’s The Runner (Atheneum, 1985).
Martino, Alfred C.
Pinned. 2005. 320p. Harcourt, $17 (0-15-205355-7). Also available in an audio edition.
Gr. 9–12. In a story told in alternating voices, two high-school wrestlers, Ivan Korske and Bobby Zane, face off in the ring for the New Jersey title. Bobby is from a wealthy family and an affluent school, while Ivan struggles against his immigrant father and blue-collar town. They both have the drive and ambition to make it, and that’s what brings them together.
There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock. 1991. 208p. Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, paper, $4.99
Gr. 5–8. Maisie Potter goes out for junior-high wrestling—to the consternation of her brother, the team, and most of the school and community. Spinelli has fun with all the embarrassing possibilities both on and off the mat, while Maisie’s narrative raises thought-provoking questions about gender roles and independence.
Wrestling Sturbridge. 1997. 144p. Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-679-88555-2).
Gr. 8–12. High-school senior Ben wants to escape from Sturbridge, Pennsylvania, and his seemingly inevitable future working in the cinder block factory. The only way out he can see is to win a wrestling scholarship. But there’s one huge obstacle: his best friend, who is tops in Ben’s weight division.
The Boxer. 2000. 176p. Farrar, $17 (0-374-30921-3); Sunburst, paper, $6.95 (0-374-40886-6).
Gr. 6–9. Fifteen-year-old Johnny Woods has always sacrificed his needs to help his family achieve its dream of getting out of the tenement slums of 1885 New York. Then he finds one thing that could really help: boxing. Johnny’s a natural, but boxing is illegal, and even if he wins, he may still want to do something more with his life.
The Contender. 1967. 240p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-447039-3).
Gr. 7–12. Alfred Brooks’ life is going nowhere. He’s a dropout, his friend is doing drugs, and he’s in trouble on the streets. Then he starts going to Donatelli’s Gym and learns to box. There he finds out about self-reliance, confidence, and trying his hardest, even when things are down. Also see the companion novels: The Brave (HarperCollins, 1991), The Chief (HarperCollins, 1993), and Warrior Angel (HarperCollins, 2003).
Shadow Boxer. 1993. 224p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-447112-8).
Gr. 6–10. The shadow of their deceased boxer father provides the background for 14-year-old George and his younger brother, Monty. When George teaches Monty how to fight, he soon realizes that his brother is taking the lessons to the extreme, both in the gym and on the street. Somehow George must help Monty learn to use his head before his fists.
Fighting Ruben Wolfe. 2001. 224p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, paper, $6.99 (0-439-24187-1).
Gr. 8–12. Two brothers, Cameron and Ruben Wolfe, start boxing in an underground league as a way to make money and help their family when their father is injured. But they soon find that boxing means something much more to each of them—and now they must box each other.
Whale Talk. 2001. 224p. Greenwillow, $15.99 (0-688-18019-1); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $6.50 (0-440-22938-3).
Gr. 8–12. T. J. Jones starts up a swim team for Cutter High School, even though there’s no pool and no talent. He does so to prove how superficial the whole high-school sports scene is. But as the team travels to competitions, the teammates start to bond, and another valuable aspect of sports is revealed—teamwork.
Fat Boy Swim. 2004. 240p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-73205-8); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-440-23891-9). Also available in an audio edition.
Gr. 6–10. Fourteen-year-old Jimmy Kelly is fat. He’s also a genius at cooking. When Coach finds out about his cooking talents, he offers Jimmy a challenge: if Jimmy helps him, he’ll teach Jimmy to swim. As Jimmy begins working out, he starts to see a new self emerging.
Rottman, S. L.
Head above Water. 1999. 192p. Peachtree, $14.95 (1-56145-185-1); paper, $6.95
Gr. 6–9. Skye has a lot to juggle: practicing for the state championship in swimming, a new boyfriend who’s pressuring her to have sex, and the care of her 19-year-old brother with Down syndrome. The weight of it all means something has to give.
Ironman. 1995. 192p. Greenwillow, $16.99 (0-688-13503-X); HarperTempest, paper, $6.99 (0-06-059840-9).
Gr. 8–12. Bo Brewster has a problem with his temper, so much so that he’s given the choice of attending an anger management class or face being expelled from school. He chooses the class, and while attending it starts to deal with his feelings about his father and also meets friends that help him compete in a triathlon.
Rebecca Hogue Wojahn is the education reference librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.