Fiction for sports fans

Some sports are seasonal, but reading novels about them is an all-year-round affair, and these four recent offerings for middle graders and middle schoolers are worth adding to the rotation.

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
by Donna Barba Higuera
Intermediate, Middle School    Levine Querido    272 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-64614-003-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64614-004-6    $17.99

The only thing standing between Lupe Wong and her chance to meet fellow Chinacan (or is it Mexinese?) Fu Li Hernandez, “the first Asian/Latino pitcher in the major leagues,” is an A in PE class. But for seventh graders at Issaquah Middle School, that means square dancing. Lupe, always willing to fight for a cause, is determined to cancel what she sees as both an obstacle and an outdated tradition. Unfortunately, she ends up alienating her two best friends (not to mention the rest of the class) in the process. Now Lupe has to decide which causes are worth fighting for and what she’s willing to sacrifice to do the right thing. Ultimately, her efforts both raise awareness of the racist history of the song “Turkey in the Straw” and make room for more than one kind of dancing at Issaquah’s first annual Family Celebration of Cultures Night. As Lupe observes, “Some of us aren’t even from here. And some of us were right here before this country existed. But none of us are any better than the other.” Issues of identity, equity, and inclusion are explored with humor and heart in Higuera’s debut, and readers will cheer right along with Lupe’s family and friends when she, accompanied by Fu Li, promenades all the way to the pitcher’s mound. ANAMARÍA ANDERSON

Becoming Muhammad Ali: Based on the Story of Young Cassius Clay
by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander; illus. by Dawud Anyabwile
Intermediate, Middle School    Patterson/Little, Brown/Houghton    320 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-316-49816-6    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-49818-0    $9.99

Patterson and Alexander, two heavyweights in the world of books (and their respective publishing houses), unite to tell the story of how Cassius Clay grew up to be Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time. The book, authorized by the Ali estate, is not so much a biographical novel as a chance to hang out with young Cassius Clay as he lives his daily life in Louisville in the late 1950s — going to school, being with friends, shooting hoops, watching boxing on television, and working, while navigating the dangers of life in a segregated city, all of which is related in lean and eloquent first-person verse with plenty of white space on each page. Clay’s poetic narration is framed by first-person prose sections (called “rounds” instead of chapters) by his (fictional) best friend Lucius Wakely, who, by the end of the story, writes for a big newspaper and is at ringside for the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali’s 1974 fight in Zaire against George Foreman. Anyabwile, who illustrated the graphic novel edition of Alexander’s The Crossover (rev. 5/14), adds a powerful visual element with occasional dynamic, full-page black-and-white images; and a short bibliography is appended. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Ana on the Edge
by A. J. Sass
Intermediate, Middle School    Little, Brown    240 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-316-45861-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-45863-4    $9.99

After winning the title of U.S. Juvenile Girls Champion in figure skating, twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin is ready to start a new season on the ice, competing at a higher level and commuting most days from San Francisco to a new rink in Oakland. It also means working with a new choreographer who is not only strict but requires all female skaters to wear skirts, even to practice. Ana starts to notice that “girly” things at which she had previously never blinked an eye, such as being referred to as “Miss Ana-Marie” and wearing a bedazzled costume for competitions, now make her cringe. With help from new friend Hayden, a transgender skate student she meets at the rink, Ana begins to see her gender in a new, fluid way: “Uncertainty feels like less of a burden and more of an opportunity.” Ana’s family (a single-parent Chinese American Jewish family) is not one frequently represented in middle-grade stories. For all of the protagonist’s discomfort, the tone of the story remains hopeful as she works toward a new understanding of herself. She decides to continue using her given name and pronouns — a helpful reminder that there is no one way to identify as nonbinary. The personal connection of the author, a figure skater who identifies as nonbinary, to the story is evident within its pages in both the nuances of figure skating and Ana’s interrogation of gender, and is explained in a thoughtful note at the end. HILL SAXTON

Before the Ever After
by Jacqueline Woodson
Intermediate    Paulsen/Penguin    176 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-399-54543-6    $17.99

In her latest novel in verse, Woodson (Locomotion, rev. 3/03; Brown Girl Dreaming, rev. 9/14) explores the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) on football players and their families from the perspective of ZJ, son of tight end Zachariah “44” Johnson. The novel opens in 1999 and flashes forward in time to what ZJ calls the “ever after,” then fills in what happened in between. In life before the ever after, ZJ and his friends watched his daddy on TV on Sundays. He remembers listening to music and making up songs with his father. But then slowly things change. Daddy isn’t playing as much. His hands shake. His head hurts. He can’t remember things. On the eve of the new millennium, ZJ’s world changes completely when his dad yells at him and his friends, not remembering who they are. Then the headaches and forgetfulness become more frequent. Doctor visits and tests are a new way of life, with very few answers. In lyrical verse, Woodson conveys the confusion and loss that many families feel as they try to figure out what is wrong with their loved one. Each of the poems ably captures the voice of the story’s preteen boy protagonist; readers can feel the sense of love and loss that ZJ is experiencing as his dad slips away. Even though that loss is difficult, Woodson reminds readers that life’s challenges are more easily faced with the support of friends and family. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the November 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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