Sports stories have long been a mainstay of middle-grade fiction for boys. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s my husband’s favorite book was Matt Christopher’s Catcher with a Glass Arm. His tattered copy still has a place of honor on our family bookshelf.
In contrast, I can’t think of a single title from that time that featured an aspiring girl athlete. Sure, there were plenty of “tomboy” stories about girls like Katie John and Ramona, but nothing about organized sports that I can recall. Anita Silvey, in her Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, confirms that it wasn’t until the early 1980s that readers could find realistic portrayals of girls in sports in books like Rosemary Wells’ When No One Was Looking.
Thankfully, the times have changed, and so have the books. As more girls take to the soccer pitch, basketball court, and baseball diamond, their experiences are being reflected in contemporary fiction. Wendy Shang, a fellow Mixed-up Files member whose debut novel featured a girl with hoop dreams, notes that “sports can be such a huge source of drama and interest for kids. It’s not just about winning and losing, but about personal performance, team dynamics, and appreciating the art of the game.”
Following are some of my favorite books that feature strong female characters, compelling stories, and sports—great reads for athletes and non-athletes alike. In some, like Andrea Montalbano’s Breakaway, the sport is front and center, while in others, like Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, it’s one thread in a greater coming-of-age story. All book descriptions come from Indiebound.
Have a favorite book you’d like to add? Leave your suggestions/thoughts in the comments.
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane
For an eighth grader, Molly Williams has more than her fair share of problems. Her father has just died in a car accident, and her mother has become a withdrawn, quiet version of herself.
Molly doesn’t want to be seen as “Miss Difficulty Overcome”; she wants to make herself known to the kids at school for something other than her father’s death. So she decides to join the baseball team. The boys’ baseball team. Her father taught her how to throw a knuckleball, and Molly hopes it’s enough to impress her coaches as well as her new teammates.
Over the course of one baseball season, Molly must figure out how to redefine her relationships to things she loves, loved, and might love: her mother; her brilliant best friend, Celia; her father; her enigmatic and artistic teammate, Lonnie; and of course, baseball. (Note: This beautifully written tribute to fathers and daughters and to baseball is one of my favorite middle-grade books of all time—with or without sports.)
No Cream Puffs by Karen Day
Madison is not your average 12-year-old girl from Michigan in 1980. She doesn’t use lipgloss, but she loves to play sports, and joins baseball for the summer—the first girl in Southern Michigan to play on a boys’ team. The press calls her a star and a trailblazer, but Madison just wants to play ball. Who knew it would be so much pressure? Crowds flock to the games. Her team will win the championship—if she can keep up her pitching streak. Meanwhile, she’s got a crush on a fellow player, her best friend abandons her for the popular girls, the “O” on her Hinton’s uniform forms a bulls-eye over her left breast, and the boy she punched on the last day of school plans to bean her in the championship game.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Shang
Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She’s ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother’s sister, is coming to visit for several months—and is staying in Lucy’s room. Lucy’s vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang. (Note: Both my daughter and I loved this touching family story. Keep a tissue box handy!)
After All, You’re Callie Boone by Winnie Mack
“Oh, fishsticks, tartar, and a side of fries!” Runaway ferrets, former BFF drama-trauma, and one GIGANTIC (and very, very public) belly flop. No doubt about it, Callie Boone’s summer is CRUMMY. The only things keeping her afloat are dive practice with her dad and a top-secret Olympic dream. Then a boy named Hoot—who is NOT her boyfriend!—moves in next door and turns her world upside down and right-side up. Just when things start looking up, real disaster strikes and Callie feels like she’s stuck at the top of the high diving board with no way down.
Wild Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff
Lidie lives in Brazil, where she rides, a wild girl dreaming of going to live with her father, Pai, and older brother, Rafael, in New York City. Pai runs a stable at a famous race track. Since her mother died long ago, Lidie has lived with relatives. Now she’s 12—ready to leave Brazil for New York.
Meanwhile, a filly is born and begins her journey to a new home. As Lidie’s story unfolds, so does the filly’s.
In New York, Lidie finds that moving to another country is a big challenge. And Pai and Rafael still think of her as the little girl they left behind. But she’s determined to befriend, and ride, the spirited filly her father has just bought: Wild Girl. (Note: Patricia Reilly Giff is one of my favorite middle-grade authors and this graceful, economical story doesn’t disappoint. You don’t have to love horses to love this story.)
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner
Gianna Z has less than one week to collect, identify, and creatively display 25 leaves for her science project—or else she won’t be able to compete in the upcoming cross-country race. As the deadline for her leaf project draws near, life keeps getting in the way. Some things are within Gee’s control, like her own procrastination, but others aren’t, like Bianca Rinaldi’s attempts at sabotage and Nonna’s declining health. If it weren’t for her best friend Zig, Gee wouldn’t have a chance at finishing. His knowledge of trees and leaves in their rural Vermont town comes in very handy, as does his loyalty to Gee. But when Nonna disappears one afternoon, things like leaves and cross-country meets suddenly seem less important.
Heartbeat by Sharon Creech
Run run run. That’s what twelve-year-old Annie loves to do. When she’s barefoot and running, she can hear her heart beating . . . thump-THUMP, thump-THUMP. It’s a rhythm that makes sense in a year when everything’s shifting: Her mother is pregnant, her grandfather is forgetful, and her best friend, Max, is always moody. Everything changes over time, just like the apple Annie’s been assigned to draw. But as she watches and listens, Annie begins to understand the many rhythms of life, and how she fits within them. (Note: A Sharon Creech mini-masterpiece, written in verse.)
Undercover by Beth Kephart
Like a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, Elisa ghostwrites love notes for the boys in her school. But when Elisa falls for Theo Moses, things change fast. Theo asks for verses to court the lovely Lila—a girl known for her beauty, her popularity, and a cutting ability to remind Elisa that she has none of these. At home, Elisa’s father, the one person she feels understands her, has left on an extended business trip. As the days grow shorter, Elisa worries that the increasingly urgent letters she sends her father won’t bring him home. Like the undercover agent she feels she has become, Elisa retreats to a pond in the woods, where her talent for ice-skating gives her the confidence to come out from under cover and take center stage. But when Lila becomes jealous of Theo’s friendship with Elisa, her revenge nearly destroys Elisa’s ice-skating dreams and her plan to reunite her family. (Note: Beth Kephart, with her lyrical prose, is one of my favorite young-adult authors, and this book combines two of my loves: ice skating and poetry. Suitable for older tweens.)
Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner
For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s farm. But all that changes when Russian skating coach Andrei Grosheva offers Claire a scholarship to train with the elite in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire realizes that her sweet dream come true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want to see her fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow? (This is my 12-year-old daughter’s pick for the best skating book—maybe because it combines two of her loves—ice skating and math!)
Breakaway by Andrea Montalbano
LJ knows her place in the world is on the soccer field. When she’s out there scoring goals, everything’s right. But being a big-shot on the field has started going to her head. She’s been letting her temper get the best of her—both on the field and off, alienating everyone around her. Everyone except Tabitha, the popular girl who cares more about credit cards than yellow cards and spends most of her time on the bench. But when it’s LJ on the bench instead of Tabitha, forced to be a spectator instead of a star, she realizes that sometimes it takes more skill and guts to make others look good instead of yourself. And that by losing a little glory, you can win more than just championships. (Hardcore soccer fans will appreciate Breakaway. Montalbano clearly knows her soccer and the story sticks close to the action.)
Love Puppies and Corner Kicks by Bob Krech
What’s a girl to do when Mom and Dad announce that the whole family is moving to Scotland for a yearlong teacher exchange? Can you spell d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r? When Andrea gets there, she finds she and her family are living with the principal and she is being pestered by the ultraweird Jasmin. But then she finds an amazing girls’ soccer league and a cute boy named Stewart. Will Andrea’s new tough soccer girls accept that she is crushing on a boy from a rival team and not totally devoted to winning a championship?
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwick sisters are home on Gardam Street and ready for an adventure! But the adventure they get isn’t quite what they had in mind. Mr. Penderwick’s sister has decided it’s time for him to start dating—and the girls know that can only mean one thing: disaster. Enter the Save-Daddy Plan—a plot so brilliant, so bold, so funny, that only the Penderwick girls could have come up with it. (Note: This book includes what has to be the funniest soccer scene ever. Jane Penderwick loses her cool in the middle of a hotly contested match and becomes Mick Hart, a rough British footballer, hurling insults at her “gormless” opponents.)
There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli
Maisie Potter isn’t quite sure why she signed up for the boys’ wrestling team. She’s never been all that interested in boys, so it can’t have anything to do with Eric Delong, in spite of the disturbing effect his smile has on her. And she’s certainly not prepared for the effect her presence on the team has on the people around her. Her brother’s totally disgusted with her, her best friend drops her, her classmates ridicule her, and opposing teams forfeit rather than wrestle her. But Maisie’s not a quitter, and she discovers that she really likes wrestling—and that while Eric might not be worth the flak she puts up with, feeling good about herself is. (Confession: Because of the title and cover I’d always assumed Hammerlock was told from a boy’s perspective. It’s not. True-to-life wrestling action, sharp dialogue, and an equally sharp exploration of a girl’s feelings about competing with and against boys. Go, Maisie!)