I can only think of a handful of novels I’ve read with a sports theme. Not something that usually draws me in.
If you are like me in that regard, please do not overlook the titles I have for you today! Although these two novels surround us in athletic worlds, they go far beyond that as well, entering the lives of kids coping with tremendous struggles that are worthy of our attention. I found them both exceptional.
A Long Pitch Home, by Natalie Dias Lorenzi published in 2016 by Charlesbridge 245 pages
Okay, I rarely do this on my blog but I’m going to take issue with this book’s cover. The reason is that if you are anything like me, you have already been led astray as to who would like this book.
This book is a great read for boys (and girls) ages 9-12. So although the cover is beautiful, drawn by a crazy-talented illustrator — I think it will be a hard sell for that demographic. Which is really too bad because it’s a fantastic, important read. I hope I am dead wrong. And I sincerely apologize if I just wounded anyone. But I think it might take some extra strategizing to convince middle grade boys to pick this up.
Clearly this is a book about baseball and if you’re savvy you’ll also note the Islamic crescent moon there. That’s a great clue as to one of the reasons this book is such a timely, far-beyond-baseball read.
Bilal is a 10-year-old, Pakistani boy. He’s a member of a loving, tight-knit family living in Karachi, and he’s one of the best young cricket players around.
Life is jolted completely out of it’s socket, however, when his father, Baba, is summarily arrested. Just one day — boom — he disappears. When he returns three days later, Baba declares that “it is high time we leave Pakistan to live with your Hassan Uncle and Noor Auntie in America.” That’s a closely-guarded secret, though. No goodbyes allowed.
Baba is barred from leaving the country for an indefinite time, so Bilal, his mother, and his younger sister make the journey alone and begin the utterly-disorienting transition to a new language and culture. Lorenzi, who moved extensively in her childhood and has lived internationally, portrays the painful acculturation process masterfully.
Bilal’s changeover from cricket to the weird new game of baseball, his struggles with English idioms and new friendships, intensify his homesickness. That, compounded by profound worries over his father and the travel ban keeping him from them, is a great deal for a young boy to manage — but this is what so many newcomers to our schools and neighborhoods face every day. I love this window into their world.
Combining breezy middle-grade life, competitive sport, warm families, a serious treatment of Bilal’s Muslim faith, real anxieties affecting immigrants and refugees, light humor, a dash of girl-power, and a huge helping of culture clash — this is a complex, perfectly-paced, well-told story. With gobs of baseball, to boot. I hope your middle-graders will give this a whirl.
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds published in 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 180 pages
Jason Reynolds grabbed my attention with his gripping, co-authored novel, All-American Boys, which I reviewed here. I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this, his newest novel, written for a younger, middle-grade audience. It’s the first in a series about Track and a group of extraordinarily-talented kids aiming for the Junior Olympics.
Ghost is not one of those kids. Although he can run remarkably fast, Ghost just doesn’t see any point in sprinting around a circle, or toeing the line of some short, bald coach. Just stupidity, that is. Ghost runs fast because his life has depended on it. Literally.
Three years ago, when Ghost was a fourth-grader, his alcoholic father hit his worst mean streak ever. Pulled a gun on Ghost and his mom. Ghost has no problem recalling the fear of getting yanked out of bed, terrified, dumbfounded, as his dad, in his drunken rage, shot at them. And yes, he ran. Faster than he ever thought it was possible for legs to move. Think that’ll do something to your heart? Your soul?
When this angry kid encounters the track team, Coach sees his potential and signs him up. That’s a recipe for immense conflict for Ghost, both externally and internally, and this book does not sprint past the pain, stupid choices, mouthiness, and bad attitudes. Simultaneously, Ghost is a kid that gets under your skin. His wounds, shame, yearnings, love for his mom, conscience, good heart; the fragile person sheltering beneath a tough shell, all make us root for him. It’s an honest, no-nonsense, deeply empathetic look at the cost of betrayal and the tenacity required to heal.
Reynolds superbly establishes the contemporary urban setting. References to athletes like Usain Bolt and LeBron James also help create a strong, current feel. Expect a page-turner with a cliff-hanger ending. Pitch it to an older reluctant reader for sure, as well as boys and girls ages 10 and up. Perfect boys book club read.