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, and physical awareness are only a few of the many positive things people, and especially kids, can take away from sports.
What about in middle-grade literature? Is there a good representation of sports in this field?
There are many great writers producing quality sports books. For example, 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., and there are even great titles from sports reporters Mike Lupica and John Feinstein.
For a sampling of some middle-grade sports titles, check out this excellent list of middle grade sports books from Kirkus or 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 would even in the least bit appear to a kid as being a sport book. Only one, though, an honor book in 1935, appeared to be centered on a sporting activity. That’s a serious omission of sports-themed books from the Newbery award list. Enough of an omission to require further study to evaluate if this is a trend within the entire spectrum of children’s literature awards.
Why are sports books 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 middle-grade literature? Sports grab the interest of target readers. Sports have inherent drama, excitement, and character interactions, which are familiar to the middle-grade reader. The sport often becomes a hook to help catch the reader. Would the Harry Potter series be the same wildly popular Harry Potter series it is today without Quidditch? J.K. Rowling’s use of Quidditch early in the series was one of the hooks (one of many!) she used to grab the audience by the hand and lead them into the wonderful world of Hogwarts. Then, as the series shifted from middle grade to young adult, the use of Quidditch faded as the characters and issues they faced matured.
Sports make great fiction and the relatability of sports to the middle-grade reader makes a greater appeal for sport books. The very nature of sport and competition lends a great dramatic background in which to set a story.
Sports also make great non-fiction. A background of a sport, especially a world sport or an emerging sport, makes for interesting reading. Biographies of athletes and coaches have always been some of my favorite reading. It is always an inspiration to read of the triumph many athletes have accomplished over the hurdles in their lives. Non-fiction sports books can present a vibrant and alive history as no textbook can.
Take the performance of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich amidst the background of Nazi Germany as an example. One can probably find the basic detail of this particular showdown in many history books, but the background and detail as told in the non-fiction titles, JESSIE: THE MAN WHO OUTRAN HITLER by Jesse Owens and Paul G. Niemark, and JESSE OWENS: I ALWAYS LOVED RUNNING by Jeff Burlingame, bring the triumphant 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 to bring readers through the rocky developmental period between early readers and lifelong readers.
Sports hold a major place in our modern society. Kids relate to sport, which means they can relate to sport in their literature as well.
Let them read sports!
About the Author
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training related topics at www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.com. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.