Hothead by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Kevin Cowherd
Football Champ by Tim Green
My cousin is a groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles, and Cal Ripken, Jr. is his hero:
In fact, it wouldn't be too far off the mark to say that here in Baltimore, Cal Ripken, Jr. is everyone's hero. He's my hero just for being a worthwhile hero. So many sports stars aren't. But even if he's not your hero, it is at least impossible to say anything not nice about the guy. Gentlemanly demeanor. Sterling work ethic. Humility. Compassion. Intelligence. Humor. Blue eyes like lasers. And his sense of responsibility toward the kids who look up to him verges on the ecclesiastical. Every sports star should be setting an example like this.
Saint Cal of Baltimore.
In keeping with Cal's dedication to his younger fans, every couple of years since he's retired from major league baseball, he has written (or participated in the writing of) a book - either a book for kids or a book about working with kids. Needless to say, here in the public library in Baltimore, we buy those books automatically and we hand them out like candy.
Hothead is Cal's first middle grade chapter book, written with Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd. In Hothead, Connor Sullivan, a talented shortstop with a bat like a hammer, struggles with his temper as his team battles through Little League playoffs.
Tim Green is a pretty worthwhile role model too. A sports commentator, an attorney, and a bestselling author of fiction for kids and adults, he even coaches the local high school football team. And all this after a football career with the Atlanta Falcons that any man could be proud of.
Not too bad-looking either.
Truly a scholar and a gentleman, Green was Phi Beta Kappa at Syracuse, as well as garnering a slew of other accolades. When he went back to Syracuse for the law degree, he achieved that with honors too. And as for the writing? As an undergrad, Tim Green took classes with Tobias Wolff. His novels for adults do very well, and there's a memoir too, about his efforts to reconnect with his biological mother.
Tim Green's football novels, Football Genius, Football Champ, and Big Time, are about Troy White, a teenage athlete with an uncanny ability to analyze and predict plays.
As a reviewer of 'boy books,' I have read my fair share of sports novels. They can be a little predictable, I won't lie. Kids who read sports novels are usually not looking for intricate relationships or imaginative settings. So I have learned to evaluate sports novels based on characterization, dialogue, and action scripting. They must be a very 'natural' read - unrealistic behavior does not play with these readers.
When I read a sports novel, I am also on the lookout for heavy-handed values lessons. Sports is so rife with that stuff anyway - fair play, sportsmanship, honesty, team spirit - good grief, you'd think it was more about developing admirable human beings than grooming children to be our nation's gladiators! I kid. But the cliches of coaching are better delivered by an earnest adult who has also given you tips on your follow-through - on the page, those cliches are giant turn-offs.
All these restrictions leave the kids sports novel in a challenging position. It's got to be plot, plot, plot - battles and wars - with not too many speeches. But you've got to find new and exciting ways to describe sports action, otherwise it's going to get repetitive. You need heroes and enemies, but the enemies are opponents, not bad guys: we're all just kids here.
Tim Green solves the predictability problem with a lot of off-the-field plot involving grownups. Troy's predictive ability lands him a job with the Atlanta Falcons. His mom is dating the Falcons quarterback. His biological father shows up. There's crime. Hey, I'm all for it.
Cal and Kevin keep it small, relying on economical, natural dialogue and simple scenes to move each character's development forward in fits and starts. If Football Champ is an afternoon on an ATV chewing through a landscaped course, Hothead is a day spent riding bikes.
But what about the values thing? You might think, given its description, that Hothead would be depressingly, monotonously all about sportsmanship. Besides, who wants to read a novel by a saint? I honestly felt like I was taking one for the team when I picked up the audio edition of this book for my family to listen to.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that while, yes, the book is all about sportsmanship, it is neither depressing nor monotonous. Connor loses his crap a couple times during baseball games, throwing his glove and kicking equipment into the dugout, and he gets suspended from play because of it, even though he is a star player.
Immediately he is ashamed of his behavior - described as 'tantrums' by these authors, which I find refreshingly straight. Sure, children have as much right to strong feelings as anyone, and I do believe that denying feelings of anger or frustration is probably pretty unhealthy in the long run (my sisters-in-law joke about how Catholic school taught them to "take those feelings and just tamp them waaay down inside"), but there is a modern tendency to allow healthy emotional expression to tip over into true self-indulgence. And I'm not just talking about kids.
Connor's behavior is immediately addressed by his friends, family and coach, some of whom kid him about it, some of whom try to help. But there is plenty of fun banter among his teammates; there's a girl; and there's a lot of baseball in and around the heavier scenes. There's not a single sanctimonious note as Connor struggles to learn self-control. And in fact, there's some not-bad practical advice.
I also like that Connor practices all the time. He's a baseball star because he is talented, sure, but he is also a star because before every game, he warms up in his backyard - and that's before warming up with the team. If he needs to think, he does it throwing into the rebounder net. While he talks to his friends, they are playing catch.
Troy and his friends practice a lot too - I think the authors, as former professional athletes who have been asked a million times the secret to their success, understand that kids do not in their hearts believe in the 10,000 hour rule, and so they never miss an opportunity to reinforce "practice, practice, practice".
One other thing that I look for in sports novels is how the non-sporty are depicted. Not every kid who likes sports novels is himself a competent athlete. In Hothead, there is the unfortunately named Marty Lupus. (Lupus? Really guys? Pretty sure this is a nod to little Timmy Lupus in The Bad News Bears, but naming a physically incompetent character after a disease was a bad joke even then - it doesn't get better with repetition.)
Marty is a strike-out king, klutzy, unlikely to see much on-field play unless the game is pretty well sewn up, but Marty is still an important member of the team. In one of the few kind of unrealistic characterizations in the book, Marty is teased gently and affectionately, makes fun of himself, and is unrelievedly cheerful and a good sport. I'm letting the authors off the hook on this one though, because my two-man under-ten focus group, neither of whom is much of an athlete either, just loved Marty.
In Football Champ, the non-athletes are mostly support staff or hangers-on of the sports industry: a sports doctor, a sports reporter, administrators of various kinds. I can't think of a single peer of Troy and his friends who is not a jock. Many of these adult non-athletes are bad guys - if your opponents on the playing field can't be bad guys, your bad guys have to be grownups. And it took me a while to notice this, but all of the bad guys are in some way physically unattractive - overtanned, overweight, skinny, wearing a hairpiece.
This is a really subtle thing, and it is not ok. Let me break it down for you, Schuester: Fat does not equal evil. Skinny does not equal evil. Big weird nose does not equal evil; thin lips; flappy arms - none of these things equals evil. I think that most authors, and probably Tim Green, don't realize they do it, just as many athletic, good-looking kids don't realize that they automatically marginalize the less-attractive, less-proficient kids in school.
And I think there are other ways that Tim Green is writing from the perspective of an accomplished athlete... to kids who are themselves actively involved in sports. His middle school athletes eat kind of a lot of junk food, for example. So much that I had to stop the CD and ask my husband, who played varsity basketball in high school and rugby at college, if kid athletes expended so many calories that they had to consume extra. He said he didn't recall any diet recommendations from his high school coaches at all (Catholic schools again) but that in college each member of the rugby team was issued his own Kegerator.
I was also troubled by Troy's admiration of his mom's boyfriend's Hummer and his giant mansion. Or - not so much by that admiration: after all, there is no denying that a wealthy lifestyle is one of the motivations for pursuing sports as a career. But rather, it bothered me that this yearning for wealth is reported without comment or any attempt to put it in perspective.
Here's the rebuttal to this argument: often, characters in a book will have habits and goals that are unique to those characters and do not represent an endorsement by the author. Of course they do. But the characters in Football Champ are not strong enough to carry these traits as elements of their own personalities, and there are no characters with contrasting goals or habits: ergo, the reader has to assume that in this world, jocks drink soda and eat chips, and a big-screen TV is something to look forward to.
Last but not least, since I listened to both of these books on CD, let me applaud the audio productions of each book. Cal reads Hothead, and his slightly gravelly real-guy voice gives the book an intimate, friendly quality - like your neighbor is reading you the book. Mercifully, he doesn't try any vocal characterizations, but dialogue flows well enough that we never got lost trying to figure out who just said what.
Football Champ is read by a full cast, and they are terrific. Troy and his good friend Tate (Tate's a girl) are read by Green's own kids, who do a magnificent job. I don't know how old they are: young enough for their voices to still sound like authentic middle schoolers, but old enough to read the text with proper emphasis and feeling. Some of the rest of the actors use voices that slide a little into caricature, but overall, the book is extremely well served by the full cast treatment.
Both of these books work for sports fans grade three and up.
Hothead also (ineptly) reviewed by USAToday - that review features an interview with Ripken.