The books recommended below were all published within the last several years and reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.
Suggested grade level: K–3
Crouching Tiger written by Ying Chang Compestine; illus. by Yan Nascimbene (Candlewick)
Grandpa teaches his impatient grandson Ming Da the careful exercises of tai chi; eventually the two play a pivotal role in the Chinese New Year parade. Luminous watercolors show the family’s balance of the traditional and the modern. 40 pages.
Sergio Saves the Game! by Edel Rodriguez (Little)
Clumsy penguin Sergio loves soccer. Determined, he becomes a goalie—then a rival team of seagulls puts him to the test. Dynamic illustrations, speech bubbles, and well-timed page turns embody the humorous tale. 40 pages.
Madlenka Soccer Star by Peter Sís (Farrar/Foster)
Madlenka dribbles a soccer ball around her city block, outplaying a dog, parking meter, and trashcan before meeting up with her friend. Meticulously lined watercolors culminate in a scene of Madlenka playing with kids around the world. 40 pages.
Suggested grade level listed with each entry
Bramble and Maggie by Jessie Haas; illus. by Alison Friend (Candlewick)
School horse Bramble has a mind of her own. No one wants her—until Maggie arrives. The narrative voice is direct and easy to read; humorous illustrations feature big-eyed horses and their nonplussed riders. Grade level: K–3. 56 pages.
Basketball Bats and Goof-Off Goalie [Gym Shorts] written by Betty Hicks; illus. by Adam McCauley (Roaring Brook)
Fourth-grader Henry and his buddies love sports. In Basketball, they accept a challenge from kids who take winning too seriously. Goof-Off is for any soccer player who thinks being a goalie is easy. Pencil sketches decorate each spread. Grade level: 1–3. 55 pages.
Swimming with Sharks [Gym Shorts] written by Betty Hicks; illus. by Adam McCauley (Roaring Brook)
Rita is excited to be a Dolphin; her enthusiasm falters after realizing her faster-swimming friends are Sharks. Should she quit swimming or conquer the flip turn? Full of sports details as well as social details of the kids who play them. Grade level: 1–3. 56 pages.
The Home-Run King [Scraps of Time] written by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Gordon C. James (Viking)
Gee’s baseball-obsessed cousins’ lives get interesting when their parents rent a room to Negro League slugger Josh Gibson. After getting caught trying to sneak into a game, they have to clean up the stadium, but they also get to practice with their hero. Grade level: 1–3. 92 pages.
Suggested grade level: 4–6
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic)
Vietnamese American Matt has two passions—piano and baseball—and one secret: he feels responsible for injuries his little brother sustained during the Vietnam War. Powerful images in free verse capture Matt’s painful memories. 219 pages.
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane (Knopf)
After her father’s death, young knuckleballer Molly tries out for the boys’ baseball team. Not everyone is encouraging, but she knows her dad would have approved. A compassionate and perceptive portrait of grief. 177 pages.
Wild Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff (Random/Lamb)
Headstrong Lidie leaves Brazil to join her father and brother in Queens, where they train racehorses. Meanwhile, a filly is born in South Carolina. Together, the two “wild girls” figure out where they belong. Rich characters and raw emotions rise above the usual horse story. 149 pages.
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay (Random/Fickling)
At thirteen, Andi’s passion is basketball; the arrival from the Philippines of her older eight-foot-tall half brother Bernardo is mostly a distraction. Relationships develop delicately, layer by layer, as the story is revealed. 298 pages.
The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz (Dial)
Interlinked short stories offer snapshots of nine generations of a German Jewish immigrant family and their involvement with America’s favorite pastime. A cohesive mix of sports, historical fiction, and family history. 308 pages.
Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. by Sean Qualls. (Little)
The difficult lives of three preadolescent African American narrators intersect during the year before Joe Louis wins his heavyweight championship fight. Willie, Hibernia, and Otis prove resilient and receptive to friendship. 278 pages.
Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta (Knopf)
It’s been raining in Moundville for twenty-two years. When the sun miraculously comes out, twelve-year-old baseball lover Roy assembles a scrappy team. The “Mudville Nine” help bring life to a whole town. 266 pages.
Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) by Lisa Yee; illus. by Dan Santat (Scholastic/Levine)
Bobby’s (Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally)) PE teacher expects great things of him. Overhearing his ex-football star dad say, “He’s not like me,” Bobby assumes he’s let Dad down with his nonexistent football skills. 154 pages.
Suggested grade level: 7 and up.
David Inside Out by Lee Bantle (Holt/Ottaviano)
David begins a furtive sexual relationship with his track teammate Sean. But Sean’s denials of his homosexuality make David question whether their relationship will ever evolve. A refreshing contribution to the “coming out” genre. 184 pages.
Tilt by Alan Cumyn (Groundwood)
Stan is driven to make the basketball team, but his complicated home life gets more so when his deadbeat dad shows up. Cumyn presents his teenage characters in an especially endearing light. 271 pages.
Payback Time by Carl Deuker (Houghton)
As sports editor of his school paper, Mitch unearths wrongdoings, unwittingly putting a football player’s life in danger. His transformation from mild-mannered reporter to lone avenger plays out during a nail-biter of a football season. 298 pages.
My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park by Steve Kluger (Dial)
For an eleventh-grade writing assignment, T.C., Augie, and Alé recount their freshman year shenanigans, friendships, and heartaches. Kluger’s fine touch with characterization gives these teenagers strong, distinct voices. 403 pages.
Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs by Ron Koertge (Candlewick)
Writer/first baseman/eighth grader Kevin (Shakespeare Bats Cleanup) takes on more challenging poetic forms (and romantic complications) as his team heads to the playoffs. A pleasing variety of verse is a seamless fit for his story. 170 pages.
Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton)
Giving up football to focus on basketball, D.J. (Dairy Queen) must decide whether she’s up to playing for a Big Ten school. Particulars of farm life, high school relationships, and college decisions add unexpected drama. 256 pages.
Boy21 by Matthew Quick (Little)
After his parents’ murder, Russ moves to a new school. The basketball coach asks team leader Finley to help Russ acclimate—and to convince the former phenom to play again. Deft character development ensures emotional investment. 252 pages.
The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow (HarperTeen)
Karl, a blond and fair-skinned Jew, takes boxing lessons from the famous Max Schmeling; changes under Hitler’s regime affect every aspect of Karl’s life. The sports component and direct narrative style make for a readable account of life in Nazi Germany. 410 pages.
The Georges and the Jewels written by Jane Smiley; illus. by Elaine Clayton (Knopf)
Though it’s not allowed by her strict horse-trainer father, Abby grows attached to one particular gelding and an orphaned foal. The plot unfolds naturally, with an assured, brisk voice. 234 pages.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic)
Legends of beautiful but deadly fairy horses inspire this novel. The narrative alternates between Sean Kendrick, in tune with the magic horses, and Kate “Puck” Connolly, orphaned by the creatures and desperate enough to enter the famed Scorpio Races. 409 pages.
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf)
Teen athlete Jessica begins the agonizing recovery from a bus crash in which she lost her leg. Very short chapters show Jessica’s gradual adjustment and healing with plenty of interesting medical detail and emotional authenticity. 339 pages.
Now Is the Time for Running by Michael Williams (Little)
The massacre of his small Zimbabwe village sends Deo fleeing to South Africa, where he’s invited to play in the Street Soccer World Cup. A compelling mix of suspense, sports, and social injustice. 235 pages.
Foiled by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mike Cavallaro (Roaring Brook/First Second)
In this graphic novel, top-notch fencer Aliera learns that her lab partner isn’t human–then discovers she herself is the world’s “Defender.” The juxtaposition of reality and fantasy is compelling, as is Aliera’s strong voice. 160 pages.
Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff (Egmont)
Three-hundred-pound outcast Andrew is recruited to play football. His sudden popularity is intoxicating until he realizes the team’s ulterior motives in recruiting him. Humor, romance, and sports make for a winning combination. 314 pages.
Suggested grade level listed with each entry
The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41 written by Phil Bildner; illus. by S. D. Schindler (Putnam)
Two baseball records set in 1941 have never been broken. Matter-of-fact prose in alternating sections tells DiMaggio and Williams’s stories for an affectionate glimpse of baseball history. Grade level: K-3. 32 pages.
A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis written by Matt de la Peña; illus. by Kadir Nelson (Dial)
On the eve of WWII, Joe Louis squares off against formidable German Max Schmeling, a symbol of the Nazi regime. A free-verse narrative and vivid oil paintings heighten the historic sporting event’s suspense. Grade level: K-3. 40 pages.
Up Close: Babe Ruth by Wilborn Hampton (Viking)
This biography reveals Ruth’s hard childhood; baseball was his ticket out. Later chapters chronicle Ruth’s triumphs and notorious off-field behavior. A candid portrait of a glorious athlete and an imperfect man. Grade level: 9 and up. 205 pages.
Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson written by Charles R. Smith Jr.; illus. by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook/Porter)
Ballad form and oil paintings suit the larger-than-life feel of this heavyweight champ’s tale. Johnson’s quest to be champion was hampered by white title-holders; his persistence was eventually rewarded. Grade level: 4-6. 40 pages.
Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares (Candlewick)
After a stint in the Negro Leagues, young Hank Aaron signed a minor-league contract. He faced brutal racism in the South before making it to the big leagues. An author’s note and Aaron’s career stats are included. Grade level: K-3. 40 pages.
There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived by Matt Tavares (Candlewick)
Present-tense narrative lends drama and immediacy to this biography of Boston Red Sox slugger Williams. Watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations depict Williams as large as a double-page spread can hold. Grade level: K-3. 40 pages.
Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team written by Audrey Vernick; illus. by Steven Salerno (Clarion)
In 1938, the Acerras brothers created their own semi-pro team, which played together longer than any of the era’s other (nearly thirty!) teams made up entirely of brothers. The illustrations bring the story to vivid life. Grade level: K-3.40 pages.
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! written by Jonah Winter; illus. by André Carrilho (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
Colloquial first-person Brooklynese chronicles Koufax’s star pitching career. The pencil drawings exquisitely capture the sport’s drama with angular, elongated figures. Sidebars provide relevant baseball stats. Grade level: K-3. 40 pages.
For even more sports books, see the May/June Horn Book Magazine “From the Guide” supplement.