Thanks to Eric Devine, author of the new Press Play, for stopping by today! I’m always on the lookout for great books that deal with sports and Eric’s newest book is making its way around my room as I type this. I asked Eric if he would be kind enough to share some of his favorite/most recommended sports books and he was kind enough to do so.
On my whistle:
Sports books are best when the sport is a backdrop, a canvas used to explore greater aspects of society and humanity. I think that is why even though I’ve written two sports books––even one listed as a Booklist “Best of”––I don’t think of myself as someone who writes sports books. But I do, and those, like mine, that use the court or the field as a means to an end, rise to the top with the exciting world of athletics, while grounding that action in the reality of those who play.
Therefore, my sports picks focus on stories that can, at times, juke us with the game, while showing us so much more about ourselves.
All the novels listed below come from my reading or from popular books among my students (I teach High School English), and all blurbs and images are from Goodreads.
Goodreads: Ben Wolf has big things planned for his senior year. Had big things planned. Now what he has is some very bad news and only one year left to make his mark on the world.
How can a pint-sized, smart-ass seventeen-year-old do anything significant in the nowheresville of Trout, Idaho?
First, Ben makes sure that no one else knows what is going on—not his superstar quarterback brother, Cody, not his parents, not his coach, no one. Next, he decides to become the best 127-pound football player Trout High has ever seen; to give his close-minded civics teacher a daily migraine; and to help the local drunk clean up his act.
And then there’s Dallas Suzuki. Amazingly perfect, fascinating Dallas Suzuki, who may or may not give Ben the time of day. Really, she’s first on the list.
Living with a secret isn’t easy, though, and Ben’s resolve begins to crumble . . . especially when he realizes that he isn’t the only person in Trout with secrets.
My take: Fantastic premise, period. What do you want to do with the time you have left? How do you want to be remembered? And how can you use football to prove to yourself that fear is the only thing holding you back?
Ball Don’t Lie
by Matt de la Pena
Goodreads: Sticky is a beat-around-the-head foster kid with nowhere to call home but the street, and an outer shell so tough that no one will take him in. He started out life so far behind the pack that the finish line seems nearly unreachable. He’s a white boy living and playing in a world where he doesn’t seem to belong.
But Sticky can ball. And basketball might just be his ticket out . . . if he can only realize that he doesn’t have to be the person everyone else expects him to be.
A breakout urban masterpiece by newcomer Matt de la Peña, Ball Don’t Lie takes place where the street and the court meet and where a boy can be anything if he puts his mind to it.
My take: What’s there not to enjoy? Alost soul, looking for a path, and finding more than just his skills are valuable, so is he.
Goodreads: I, Felton Reinstein, am Stupid Fast. Seriously. The upper classmen used to call me Squirrel Nut, because I was little and jumpy. Then, during sophomore year, I got tall and huge and so fast the gym teachers in their tight shorts fell all over themselves. During summer, three things happened all at once. First, the pee-smelling jocks in my grade got me to work out for football, even though I had no intention of playing. Second, on my paper route the most beautiful girl I have ever seen moved in and played piano at 6 a.m. Third, my mom, who never drinks, had some wine, slept in her car, stopped weeding the garden, then took my TV and put it in her room and decided she wouldn’t get out of bed.
Listen, I have not had much success in my life. But suddenly I’m riding around in a jock’s pick-up truck? Suddenly I’m invited to go on walks with beautiful girls? So, it’s understandable that when my little brother stopped playing piano and began to dress like a pirate I didn’t pay much attention. That I didn’t want to deal with my mom coming apart.
My take: Here is the classic, sports-can-bring-your-life-to-a-new-level tale, but one that explores how that elevation, that tunnel-vision focus, which reinforces talent, can blind you to the truth, and lead to a terrible fall.
Out of the Pocket
Goodreads: Star quarterback Bobby Framingham, one of the most talented high school football players in California, knows he’s different from his teammates. They’re like brothers, but they don’t know one essential thing: Bobby is gay. Can he still be one of the guys and be honest about who he is? When he’s outed against his will by a student reporter, Bobby must find a way to earn back his teammates’ trust and accept that his path to success might be more public, and more difficult, than he’d hoped. An affecting novel about identity that also delivers great sportswriting.
My take: A beautiful use of sports as a dual-edged sword. For many, a chosen sport can be a way to better things, but the social pressure and limited perspective valued can mean that not fitting the stereotype undercuts all your talent. But can an athlete and a team rise above the norm and be something better?
by Andrew Smith
Goodreads: Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.
With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.
Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.
My take: The cover says it all: you’re in for one bumpy and volatile ride. But rugby, again, is a metaphor for so much of the other issues at play in this novel. The world is dangerous and mean, and yet we must find comfort and solace in our friends, our teammates, ourselves. Ryan Dean West helps us navigate how that can be.
by Eric Devine
Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Tony Antioch lives in Pleasant Meadows, a trailer park where questions aren’t asked since everyone already knows the answers from their own experience. He dreams of rescuing his mother from her constant stream of abusive boyfriends but in reality can barely duck the punches that are aimed at himself.
When Tony is coerced into joining his friend Rob’s Mixed Martial Arts class, he is surprised to find that he has a talent that he actually wants to develop. But with a meth-dealing biker gang that is hungry for recruits and a vicious cycle of poverty and violence that precedes him, Tony is going to need a lot more than blood and guts to find a way out.
Gritty, powerful, and unapologetic, Tap Out explores what it takes to stay true to oneself and the consequences of the choices made along the way in order to do so.
My take: This is one of the darkest YA-sports books you could read. It is the essence of MMA, brutal and unrelenting, with only way out being through.
by Eric Devine
Goodreads: Greg Dunsmore, a.k.a. Dun the Ton, is focused on one thing: making a documentary that will guarantee his admission into the film school of his choice. Every day, Greg films his intense weight-loss focused workouts as well as the nonstop bullying that comes from his classmates. But when he captures footage of violent, extreme hazing by his high school’s championship-winning lacrosse team in the presence of his principal, Greg’s field of view is in for a readjustment.
Greg knows there is a story to be told, but it is not clear exactly what. And his attempts to find out the truth only create more obstacles, not to mention physical harm upon himself. Yet if Greg wants to make his exposé his ticket out of town rather than a veritable death sentence, he will have to learn to play the game and find a team to help him.
Combine the underbelly of Friday Night Lights with the unflinching honesty of Walter Dean Myers, and you will find yourself with Eric Devine’s novel of debatable truths, consequences, and realities.
My take: With the recent events at Sayreville War Memorial High School unfolding, you would be hard pressed to find a more pertinent story to use in order to explore the cycle of violence within athletics. Folded into the story is the question of trust so many athletes and students deal with when it comes to authority. Who do you turn to? What do you do to stop things, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end of the violence? Who are you if you look away?
I hope you find a title or two or seven that you enjoy. The world of sports is omnipresent, and so it makes sense to read about it, not for the highlights, nor for the statistics, but for the games, the wins and losses, which, when the field is cleared and the bleachers are emptied, help define the individuals that play.
If the recent hazing events at Sayreville War Memorial High School have you searching for resources, please check out my Tumblr, Initiation Secrets.
Eric Devine is the author of multiple works of Young Adult fiction, most recently Dare Me, with Press Play being published 10/28. He is also a veteran high school English teacher who spends as much time teaching as he does completing field research for his novels. His work has been listed by YALSA and Booklist for reluctant readers and for Best in Sports. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and his wife and he have two wonderful daughters and two not-so-wonderful Labradors. Find out more at ericdevine.org, facebook.com/ericdevineauthor, or Twitter: @eric_devine