We are thrilled to have on the Mixed Up Files today two authors with new middle grade books featuring awesome girls in sports! Welcome to J.H. Diehl, whose TINY INFINITIES came out on May 8th, and Laura Shovan, whose TAKEDOWN releases on June 19th.
TINY INFINITIES: When Alice’s dad moves out, leaving her with her troubled mother, she does the only thing that feels right: she retreats to her family’s old Renaissance tent in the backyard, determined to live there until her dad comes home. In an attempt to keep at least one part of her summer from changing, Alice focuses on her quest to swim freestyle fast enough to get on her swim team’s record board. But summers contain multitudes, and soon Alice meets an odd new friend, Harriet, whose obsession with the school’s science fair is equal only to her conviction that Alice’s best stroke is backstroke, not freestyle. Most unexpected of all is an unusual babysitting charge, Piper, who is mute—until Alice hears her speak. A funny and honest middle-grade novel, this sharply observed depiction of family, friendship, and Alice’s determination to prove herself—as a babysitter, as a friend, as a daughter, as a person—rings loud and true.
TAKEDOWN: Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who are die-hard mat heads, it’s in your DNA. She even has a wrestling name: Mickey. Some people don’t want a girl on the team. But that won’t stop her. She’s determined to work hard, and win.
Lev is determined too–he’s going to make it to the state championship. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome. But at the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner—a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal.
Mickey and Lev work hard together, and find a way to become friends. But at States, there can only be one winner.
This warmhearted, engaging novel by the author of the highly praised The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary explores competition among athletes, how it influences family and friendships, and what happens when one girl wants to break barriers in a sport dominated by boys.
TINY INFINITIES centers on a swimmer and TAKEDOWN features wrestlers. What inspired you to write about these sports? What was hard and what was fun about doing a deep dive into them?
Laura: I’m a recovering wrestling mom. My son wrestled for many years. During his practices and tournaments, I would sit in the bleachers and write in my notebook – little poems and sketches about what I observed on and off the mat. When my son moved on from the sport, I wasn’t ready to leave it behind. I still wanted to understand what it means to compete one-on-one, with no equipment other than your body, your brain, and your training. I needed to think through youth sports, and how competing at a high level affects not only the young athlete, but their entire family.
The hard part? By the time I was ready to write TAKEDOWN, it had been several years since my son hung up his wrestling boots. I had to relearn the sport and that was definitely a deep dive. I interviewed coaches, athletes, and wrestling parents, went to competitions, and watched hours of documentaries and tournaments on YouTube. The interviews were my favorite part. I love hearing people’s stories as I research a book. I made some good friends in the process.
Jean: In TINY INFINITIES, I wanted thirteen-year-old Alice to have an activity and a place to go outside her family. And I wanted her to have a goal she was seriously passionate about besides her goal to reunite her family. It needed to be a summer activity, because fireflies also play a key role in the story, and the season for fireflies in summer. For me, the book is partly about how a sport like swimming can help a kid through tough times.
Like Laura, I’m the mom of two kids who participated in the sport I wrote about. My son and daughter swam for a community pool summer team for more than a decade. I married into a swimming family, and in fact I’m the only person in two generations who did not grow up swimming competitively. We have age group, high school and college swimmers, water polo players, and one of my sisters-in-law trained to swim with the Argentine Olympic team. So I guess you could say TINY INFINITIES is my contribution to a family tradition.
The hard part, for me, was that Alice turns into a backstroker, and I don’t swim backstroke. Fortunately, I had plenty of family members to consult. I did lots of research, too, including – like Laura – reviewing YouTube videos, especially to watch backstroke races and tutorials in backstroke ‘starts’ and ‘turns’. The fun part was writing about what it’s like to participate in summer swim meets. I also loved getting to write in detail about something I’d never accomplished myself, that is, winning a backstroke race. And (minor spoiler alert) I loved writing about what it felt like for Alice to achieve her goal in the sport.
There seems to be so much pressure on girls these days to be “Instagram-ready,” and many aspire to a particular kind of stereotypical beauty and glamour. You’re showcasing a different type of girl. Did you think about the stereotypes that are imposed on girls and how to respond to that in your book?
Laura: One of my main characters, Mickey, is the first girl on an all-boy wrestling team. As a female athlete competing in a traditionally male, contact sport, Mickey has to confront deeply held beliefs about whether girls have the physicality, ability, and emotional strength to step on the mat and face a boy. It was important to me to give Mickey some female friends to talk this through with (her two older brothers – both wrestlers – help too). The character of Kenna, Mickey’s best friend and wrestling partner, is more aware than Mickey that middle school girls are expected to conform to feminine stereotypes. Her decision to walk away from the sport is devastating for Mickey.
I also wanted to look at societal beliefs about male athletes. The other main character in TAKEDOWN, Lev, sees wrestling as an important part of his identity. But when the coach assigns him to be Mickey’s training partner, Lev starts to question stereotypes too, especially around boys and toughness.
Jean: In my book, Alice’s new best friend, Harriet, is entirely engaged by her interests in math and science. Harriet enjoys reciting the first three hundred digits of pi and is laser-focused on creating a winning project for next year’s school science fair. She’s humble about being super-advanced in math, has an eclectic curiosity for the science of the world around her, and eventually leads an experiment to recreate firefly bioluminescence in a makeshift lab. Harriet is not entirely oblivious to feminine stereotypes around her, but she doesn’t allow them to define her – she has no time for them. I wanted to contrast Harriet with Alice, who has grown away from a group of friends more influenced by conventional stereotypes. I think Harriet gives Alice some sense of freedom to just be herself.
Friendship is an important part of both books, as well, and is such an important part of kids’ lives in the middle grade years. What was your goal in featuring these friendships?
Laura: My goal was to reflect the experience of moving out of the elementary school bubble and into junior high, a transition which can strain friendships. There are new kids to meet, new academic pressures, and a busier schedule as students travel between classes. Suddenly, the friends kids spent most of their elementary school day with are pulled in different directions. Both Mickey and Lev put so much time into their training and competition schedule, it’s easy for their non-wrestling friends to feel neglected. I wanted to show how my main characters struggle to form a good partnership with each other, even as they each fight to keep old friendships intact.
Jean: In my book, Alice makes three unlikely new friends. The first is Piper, a four-year-old girl who has lost the ability to speak and to hear language; the second Owen, Piper’s half-brother, an aspiring sushi chef who’s spending his summer being bounced around among relatives; the third is Harriet, who is new to the swim team and also thirteen. Unlike Alice, who has a talent for connecting to people, Harriet’s social skills are kind of like a stereo tuner with its treble and bass out of balance. Over the course of Alice’s life-changing summer, she influences her new friends in a profound way, and is influenced by them. My goal was to characterize how the good friendships we make – sometime the most unlikely friendships we make – can help us to grow up.
Thank you, Laura and Jean, for sharing your wonderful stories with us!
Kate Hillyer was a high school soccer player, including one ill-fated game against Mia Hamm. She runs, writes, and raises her three kids in Washington, D.C. You can find her online at katehillyer.com, and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also blogs at The Winged Pen.