Like it or not, sports dominate our society, and for many kids, sports are a major part of their lives. Sports, in proper context, can teach so many positive things. Working toward a common goal, teamwork, discipline, physical awareness are only a few of the positive things people, and especially kids, can take away from sports.
What about juvenile literature? Is there a good representation of sports in this field? Looking at the status of sports in juvenile literature, there appears to be many great writers producing quality sports books. There are the books of Matt Christopher, Chris Crutcher, and John H. Ritter, books by former professional athletes, like Tim Green and baseball Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken, Jr., plus titles from sports reporters Mike Lupica, John Feinstein. To get a sampling of great titles, check out this excellent list of middle grade sports books from Kirkus or check out Michael Sullivan’s list of sports-themed boy books.
One place you will not find many sports-themed books, though, is on the awards list. For some reason, maybe because they are not considered intellectual or high-brow enough, sports titles are left off the main stage of juvenile literature. I scanned through the Newbery Award historical listing and found only three titles that even would appear to a kid as being a sport book. There were only three whose titles would suggest being sport books and only one of those, and honor book in 1935, appeared to be centered on a sporting activity. There’s enough of an omission of sports-themed books, this may require further study to evaluate if this is a trend within the spectrum of children’s literature awards.
Why are these sports books so important? In my opinion, it is because they are gateway or bridge books for the middle grade reader. The sports topic is familiar to many kids and gives the developing reader a great place to jump into more difficult literature and/or topics. The familiarity with the sports environment and ability to associate with the characters keeps the reader engaged as they mature in their reading skills and expanding interests.
How are sports used in juvenile literature? Sports grab the interest of target readers. They have inherent drama, excitement, and character interactions, many which are familiar to the readers. The sport often is a hook which helps to catch the reader. Would the Harry Potter series be the Harry Potter series it is without Quidditch? The relatability of sports to the middle grade reader to J.K. Rowling’s use of Quidditch early in the series was one of the hooks (one many hooks) she used to grab the audience by the hand and lead them to the wonderful world of Hogwarts. Then, as the series shifted from middle grade to young adult, the use of Quidditch began to fade as the characters and issues they faced matured.
Sports make great fiction. They very nature of sport and competition lends a great dramatic background in which to set a story, especially for the middle grade reader.
Sports also make great non-fiction. A background of a sport, especially a world sport or an emerging sport, makes for great reading. Biographies of athletes, coaches have always been some of my favorite reading; it is usually an inspiration to read of the triumph many of our athlete/heroes over the issues in their lives. Non-fiction sports books can present history as no textbook can.
Take the performance of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich amidst the background of Nazi Germany. One could probably find the basic detail of the showdown in many history books, but the background and detail as told in the non-fiction titles, Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler by Jesse Owens and Paul G. Niemark, and Jesse Owens: I Always Loved Running by Jeff Burlingame, bring the story to life for the young reader.
Do sports books deserve a seat at the table of juvenile literature? They sure do.
These books are important offerings in bringing readers through the rocky developmental period between early readers and lifelong readers. Sports hold a major space in our modern society. Kids relate to sport, they relate to sport in their literature as well.
Let them read sports!
(Note: I will be hosting #MGLitChat, a Twitter chat for all things middle grade literature related, on Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 at 9:00 PM ET. This post coincides with this week’s chat topic, Writing About Sports in Middle Grade. Feel free to join us this week or any Thursday evening.)