Play ball! Sports-themed books will score with young readers

First Published      Last Updated Oct 20 2014 09:48 am

If you're into sports, then the month of October is as good as it gets. Football, postseason baseball, preseason NBA basketball — and a variety of sports-related books for young readers — are included in autumn's starting lineup. There are a number of children's authors, in fact, who consistently use the world of athletic competition as a backdrop for stories that explore broader issues.

One of the best is Chris Crutcher, a family therapist by training, who writes realistic, often gritty fiction for young adults. Crutcher's work, which is frequently challenged by would-be censors, features teenagers (generally male) struggling to find and define themselves in a world that is often unkind to those who are somehow different from their peers. Titles include "Running Loose," "Chinese Handcuffs," "Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes" and "Whale Talk."

Mike Lupica, a sports columnist and commentator on ESPN, also writes novels with a lot of heart for young-adult and middle-grade readers — children between ages 9 and 12. Lupica is equally at home when writing about basketball ("Travel Team," "Summer Ball," "True Legend"), baseball ("Heat," "The Big Field," "The Bat Boy") or football ("Million-Dollar Throw," "The Underdogs," "QB1"). Lupica's newest book, "Fantasy League," is about a 12-year-old fantasy-football genius who attempts to help a struggling new NFL team find its groove. Think "Moneyball" for minors.

John Feinstein is another excellent sportswriter turned children's author. Like Crutcher and Lupica, Feinstein writes convincingly about a variety of sporting worlds including football ("The Rivalry"), basketball ("Foul Trouble"), baseball ("Change-Up") and professional tennis ("Vanishing Act"). His novels are often structured as mysteries, and, in fact, his novel "Last Shot" was a recipient of the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe award for mystery writing. His newest novel, "The Walk On," is a novel about a talented high-school quarterback who is put in the difficult position of beating out the coach's son for a starting position.

A former Syracuse English major, as well as linebacker and defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, Tim Green writes primarily middle-grade fiction. Not surprisingly, many of his stories involve football, but Green has written a series of baseball books for young readers, too. His newest novel, "First Team," tells the story of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who attempts to reinvent himself on and off the football field.

While it's true that most books about sports are still written for and about boys, there are a growing number of girl-friendly titles. Feinstein's mysteries feature a female main character, a teenage sportswriter named Susan Carol Anderson. Utah's Bobbie Pyron's powerful first novel, "The Ring," is about a troubled teenager who takes control of her life as a result of joining a boxing club for girls. Virginia Euwer Wolf's historical novel "Bat 6" examines race relations against the backdrop of a sixth-grade girls softball game, while Linda Sue Park's "Keeping Score" tells the story of a young girl who wants more than anything for her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series.

Catherine Gilbert Murdock has written a truly charming series of YA books ("Dairy Queen," "The Off-Season" and "Front and Center") about D.J., a 15-year-old girl who does a lot of heavy lifting on the family dairy farm — literally and figuratively — after her father injures himself. Along the way she tries out for and makes her high-school football team.

Especially useful for people interested in finding sports books for girls is The Sporty Girl Book Blog, which reviews books featuring female protagonists who participate in a wide range of athletic activities from cycling to figure skating to rowing. This winning blog also gives titles recommendations for middle-grade and young-adult readers. It features interviews with authors and athletes, as well as resources for teachers.

Young sports fans can always find plenty of terrific nonfiction on library and bookstore shelves. Almanacs and record books such as Sports Illustrated "What Are the Chances: the Wildest Plays in Sports" are especially good choices for reluctant readers. Matt Christopher (who wrote series books about sports for young middle-grade readers) examines the history of legendary rivalries — the Yankees vs the Red Sox, the Celtics vs the Lakers, the Bears vs the Packers—in "The Greatest Sports Team Rivalries."

And speaking of rivalries, Sue Macy's picture book "Roller Derby Rivals" (illustrated by Matt Collins) gives readers a ringside seat to one of the first great televised sporting events — the smackdown between Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn and glamor girl Gerry Murray in New York's 69th Regiment Armory.

Finally, there's no shortage of biographies about sports figures. Some are short, appearing in anthologies such as Sports Illustrated "Big Book of Who: All-Stars." Others are book-length and cater to a range of reading abilities. Especially inspiring is the new biography "Taking Flight" about dancer Micahaela DePrince, which chronicles her journey from war orphan to the demanding world of ballet.

Game on! It is, after all, October.