Books for Kids
Book Reviewed: Alexander, Kwame. (2014). The Crossover. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Summary: Josh and Jordan are twelve-year-old twin brothers who are both stars on their junior high basketball team. Josh, who is the narrator, goes by the basketball name of Filthy McNasty because what he does on the basketball court is beyond the skill level of most other players. His brother, Jordan, goes by the simpler name of JB. Their father, a former great basketball player, goes by the name of “Da Man,” which he earned during his basketball playing days. Their mother does not play basketball, but happens to be the boys’ assistant principal. The story line arc involves the boys’ basketball playing days, their ascendance into puberty and interest in girls—at least for Jordan—and the happenings in their family, which primarily revolves around their supportive mother and the poor health and subsequent death of their father

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a rare book which is written in verse. However, don’t be dissuaded by this fact because the author writes in a kid-friendly style and even middle school kids with lower reading skills will be able to follow the story line. Occasionally the author inserts some difficult vocabulary words, such as pulchritudinous, but these insertions won’t cause most kids to stop reading. This book has won the prestigious Newberry medal and by the twentieth page you will understand why.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s a great story line and involves both the external story of playing basketball and the internal story of the boys and family as they enter adolescence and deal with the eventual loss of the father. Though the narrator is obsessed with playing basketball, his viewpoints on the game and his family are poignant and precise. There is little wasted verbiage in this book. It’s a good book to give to reluctant readers because many kids will be finished reading this book within one to four hours. Consequently, kids won’t be frightened off by an enormously thick book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How are Josh and Jordan the same? How are they different?
  • Design and write a two page story in poetry format, using either free verse or one which involves rhyming.
  • Why does the author have the father die in the story? What purpose does it serve?
  • Rewrite the last four pages of the book. How would you end the story?
  • Why is this book written in poetry format? What are the advantages? Disadvantages?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is an excellent sports book about basketball which is made even better by the use of poetry. All types of readers will most likely enjoy this book, even those who claim they hate reading. Five Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Bloor, Edward. (1997). Tangerine. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Paul moves to Tangerine County, Florida, with his engineer father, his preoccupied mother who is interested in the neighborhood association, and his football loving brother. His parents don’t seem to pay too much attention to Paul, even though he is legally blind and has eyeglasses the size of coke bottles. Paul loves to play soccer, however, and is a very good goalie—not that anyone would notice. He joins the soccer team at the local middle school, one which is not held in very high esteem by people in the community. Can Paul win the acceptance of his teammates? Can he really play goalie without any peripheral vision? Is his football-playing brother really the star of the family? What happened to make Paul legally blind? Read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel has been critically acclaimed and loved by fans ever since it was published in the late 1990’s. The message of the book hasn’t changed since then and I wouldn’t let the publication date stop you from suggesting it to your child or students. This is a sports book which is really not about sports—it’s about a legally blind boy who sees better than most people around him. The tone can be dark at times and there is a brief description of how Paul became legally blind, which may be off-putting to younger middle school kids. Still, this is one of the best sports books—that actually has something worth saying—you can persuade your middle school kid to read.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a heartwarming story of a kid with a disability overcoming the odds and working together with a group of other misfits to rise above their situation in life and defeat kids who seemingly have lots more going in their favor. Kids who are familiar with the game of soccer will especially enjoy this book, but kids who know nothing about soccer have also devoured this book and loved it.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Speculate what would have happened if Paul had normal eyesight. How would the story have been different? How would it have been the same?
  • Imagine if you had poor eyesight. How would life be different?
  • How would your life be different if you had a brother or sister who received all the attention in the family? Does that happen now? How can families prevent this from happening?
  • Write a short story about a kid with a disability or obstacle, overcoming the odds and doing something remarkable.
  • Do kids and parents you know think of kids with disabilities as being less than other normal kids? Why do they think this way? Is there an advantage to having a disability? What are the advantages?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is one of the better sports books you can find for middle school kids. It avoids the clichés and focuses on the importance of the individual and the team. Five Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Cochrane, Mick. (2009). The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. New York: Random House.

Summary: Molly is an eighth grader whose father recently died in a car accident. She misses her father because they used to play catch with one another and he taught her how to throw a knuckleball, which Molly can make dance like a butterfly. Unfortunately, Molly’s mother is having difficulty getting over her husband’s death and isn’t of much support or help to Molly as she goes through her unresolved issues. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Molly decides to try out for the baseball team instead of the softball team, which is where her fellow classmates may be found. Can Celia, her best friend, and Lonnie, the enigmatic artist and catcher on the baseball team, help Molly figure out who she really is? Will Molly survive the unwelcoming reception given to her by some of the boys on the baseball team? And what does Zen have to do with baseball?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a reasonably famous book about girls playing a sport normally reserved for boys. The language is clean and there aren’t any violent scenes—other than physical contact during a few of the baseball games, so you don’t have to worry about exposing middle school kids to gobs of gratuitous violence. Fundamentally, this isn’t a book about baseball—it’s a book about a girl who struggles to find the true meaning of family and friends. Even though the main character is a girl, many middle school boys will still find this book to be to their liking.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The Girl who Threw Butterflies really is the best of both worlds—a book about sports and a book about friendship and family. The baseball scenes aren’t overdone and unlike some other middle school sports books on the marketplace, an extensive knowledge of baseball and current baseball players is not necessary to enjoy reading this book. There is a rewarding inner story about a middle school girl trying to cope with the recent death of her father and the emotional distance being created between the mother and the daughter.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why does the author have Molly throwing knuckleballs? Why doesn’t the author stick with the usual assortment of pitches used by pitchers, such as fastballs or curveballs or change-ups or sliders?
  • Pick a chapter and tell the story from either Celia or Lonnie’s point of view. Pay attention to how the story line changes because it is told by someone other than Molly. What did you notice?
  • Explain what Zen has to do with The Girl who Threw Butterflies.
  • Why is Coach Z in the story? What purpose does he serve?
  • Are there any other sports which allow both girls and boys to play together? Write a 3-5 story about boys and girls playing together. Make sure one of your characters is one of the few male or female athletes on the team.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a good coming-of-age book about a girl trying to overcome her father’s death. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Dana, Maggie. (2011). Keeping Secrets: Timber Ridge Riders. Middletown, DE: Pageworks Press.

Summary: Kate McGregor is a fourteen-year-old girl who has found work at a horse barn assisting a young girl, Holly, who is bound by a wheelchair. Holly loves horses and her mother runs the stables. But Kate has a big secret to hide. She thinks she made a big mistake and forgot to lock an expensive horse in the stall. Later the horse escaped and suffered a terrible accident. Even though Kate is an excellent rider, she can’t stand the thought of getting back on a horse again. To make matters worse, Angela Dean, a girl who hangs around the stables, is persnickety and vicious (and rich) girl who will stop at nothing to make Kate and Holly look bad. Can Kate regain her courage and ride again? The championship competition is coming up and what will happen? Will Angela ruin everything with her conniving schemes and plots?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is the first in a series of horse books which has swept many a horse-loving girl off her feet. While it can be argued that the plot isn’t terribly original, and some of the action scenes are a bit over the top, horse loving girls don’t seem to care and voraciously read these books one after another. There aren’t any violent scenes in this book or swearing, so you don’t need to worry about either one of these issues. It’s fairly clean. I rode horses for many years growing up and the scenes involving riding are fairly realistic.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a great story about a girl who overcomes her inner demons and lives to ride another day. The message in this story is one of hope and friendship. The nemesis—Angela Dean—is a character everyone can learn to despise because—well, who doesn’t like to boo and root against a rich, spoiled, conniving child? For someone who is not familiar with horses, this book will give them a nice introduction into some of the barn work and competitive races which go along with raising expensive competition and show horses.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Did you find it believable about Holly and her disability? Why or why not? Make sure you use an example from the book to support your stance.
  • Angela Dean seems to play a stock or stereotypical role. What is a stock or stereotypical character? If you don’t know, do some research to find out.
  • Imagine you are Kate McGregor. What would you have done differently if you had been in the story?
  • If you were going to write a sequel to this book, what would it be about? Explain to someone what the story line might be in the sequel.
  • Pick a competition involving horses. Do some research about what it is all about. Then write and explain the competition in no more than 200 words on a piece of paper.

Overall evaluation of this book: Who doesn’t love a good horse book? It’s short and easy to read. Five Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Green, Tim. (2012). Unstoppable. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Summary: Harrison is a thirteen-year-old boy who has been placed in four foster homes, the last with an abusing couple. His latest placement is, finally, with a normal couple who love one another very much. The wife is an attorney and the father is a football coach of the local junior high football team. Harrison can’t believe his luck has finally turned and soon he is smashing through defensive lines as a running back, earning the nickname, “unstoppable.” Of course, he first has to prove himself to his teammates, including learning how to deal with a bully on his team. Things go well for Harrison until a knee injury reveals that he has a much larger problem—bone cancer. Can Harrison continue to be “unstoppable” even though his leg has to be amputated? And who is Major Bauer and why is he suddenly pushing Harrison like he has never been pushed before.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a somewhat famous sports book about football and a boy’s dream of playing in the National Football League. Sports-obsessed boys will have the best chance of reading and enjoying this book. There is a very nice moral about never quitting in the storyline, even though Harrison comes across sometimes as an angry teenager and it’s hard to believe the best looking girl in school would continue helping a boy who continually pushes her away. Tim Green has written many sports books so if your middle schooler likes this book, there are more to be read.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a football sports book which is really about overcoming adversity and never letting your dreams die, no matter how large the looming obstacle. The overall tone is upbeat and positive, a personality trait we all want middle school kids to express. Even though Harrison has a difficult childhood and at times isn’t a likeable character, it will be very hard for middle school kids to be not rooting like crazy for Harrison to succeed by the end of the story. This is one of those books which seems to follow all the traditional jock story lines and characters and yet succeeds in holding kids spellbound until the dramatic finish.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the story to someone from Becky’s point of view. How is her version of the story similar to Harrison’s? How is it different?
  • Imagine if you were Harrison after losing a leg to cancer. How would your life be different?
  • Why is Major Bauer in the story? What role does he serve?
  • Explain why Harrison is given the nickname “unstoppable.”
  • Is Harrison’s story common with kids who have foster parents? If you don’t know, do some research to find out.

Overall evaluation of this book: A solid sports story about a boy who has many obstacles to overcome. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lipsyte, Robert. (1967). The Contender. New York: HarperCollins.

Summary: Alfred is a seventeen-year-old high school dropout who works in a local grocery store. His best friend, James, is constantly bugging him to rob the grocery store and to use drugs with him. For the most part, Alfred resists but James robs the store and is caught because Alfred forgets to tell him about the new alarm system the owners had installed. To escape the pressure of kids blaming him for James’ arrest, Alfred joins a local boxing club run by a tough old coach named Donatelli. There, Alfred works hard and tries to turn himself into a boxing contender. Will Alfred be able to resist the lure of his best friend’s addiction? What does it mean to be a contender? And does Alfred have what it takes?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book was written over forty years ago but, with a few minor changes, could have been written today. The same situations and problems plague kids around the country. The book is primarily about boxing and what it means to be a “contender.” Consequently, this book is equally about the main character’s inner journey as it is about the exterior plot. However, if kids don’t enjoy boxing, this book may be a tough sell to middle schoolers. However, because it is a quick read, The Contender may be a good fit for kids who have below-grade reading skills or for those who don’t like to read.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The stories about life on the street are real as are the scenes in the boxing ring. But this book is not about the harshness of the street or the brutality inside the boxing ring—it’s about the psychological journey of Alfred as he tries to figure out his place in the world and what it means to really be a contender. As it turns out, winning and losing have little to do with being a contender. There is also a side story of friendship between two boys that drugs and boxing can’t pull apart.

Discussion points with kids:

  • This story takes place in Harlem. Where is Harlem and what is it like today? What was it like when this book was written (1960’s). Do some research on Harlem.
  • Describe the friendship between Alfred and James. How does it change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story? Use examples from the book.
  • Could you do what Alfred does and step into the boxing ring? Why or why not? Where do you find your athletic and life challenges?
  • Rewrite the last three pages of the book. How else could the story have ended?
  • Why is the title of this book The Contender?

Overall evaluation of this book: A sports story with a message. Imagine that. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lupica, Mike. (2010). Million-Dollar Throw. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: Mike is a thirteen-year old boy who likes playing quarterback for his football team and loves the New England Patriots, especially Tom Brady, their star quarterback. One day he purchases a football signed by Tom Brady and enters a raffle to be the individual selected to win a million dollars by throwing a football through a small target during halftime of the New England Patriots Thanksgiving football game. Against the odds, he wins the raffle. He seems to be on top of the world. Suddenly, however, he loses command of this throwing arm and begins throwing interceptions during football games and is benched. In addition, his father loses his job and his mother has to work two shifts in order to make ends meet. They are also in danger of losing their house because of the lack of money available. Not only that, but his best friend, Abby, is losing her eyesight to a rare retinal disease. Under the pressure of the NFL lights on Thanksgiving, can he make the throw which will seemingly solve most of his family’s problems?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Mike Lupica has written numerous books for middle school kids on a variety of sports-related topics. If your child is interested in sports, Lupica is one of the better authors your child can discover. This book is clean of bad language and the relationship between Nate, the main character, and Abby, his best friend, is not presented as a boyfriend/girlfriend situation, but as a true friendship, without the trappings of love and romance.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If your kids love stories about sports, this will be a great selection for them. There are several stories within the broader story—the financial hardship families go through when economic times are hard, and Abby’s deteriorating eyesight—but they are very well done and only add to the overall narrative.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Speculate what would have happened to the family and Abby if Nate had not been able to make the million dollar throw.
  • Imagine if you were slowly losing your eyesight. How would life be different? What would you do?
  • How would your life be different if your parents had less money than they have now? What would likely happen and how would you respond?
  • How does Nate solve his accuracy problems throwing the football?
  • What kind of a relationship do Nate and Abby have with one another? Is it believable? Give three examples from the book to support your answer.

Overall evaluation of this book: Sports fans will like this book and there even is a nice moral to the story with which many parents and teachers will agree. A deeper book than most superficial sport books which are available to middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lupica, Mike. (2008). The Big Field. New York: Puffin Books.

Summary: Hutch is a fourteen-year-old second baseman living in Florida, who really wants to play shortstop. Unfortunately, he has been displaced at shortstop by Darryl, a hot-shot prospect who some scouts compare to a young Alex Rodriguez, a current major league baseball star. Tension exists between the two boys and finally boils over as Hutch gets into an argument with Darryl over the amount of baseball instruction Darryl is receiving from Hutch’s father, a former great minor league baseball player who never made it to the major leagues. The two boys must struggle with their animosity toward one another and somehow resolve their differences because their team is playing in the Florida World Series. Will the boys find common ground before their team is knocked out of the championships? And will Hutch be able to resolve the feelings he has for his father, who makes a living by performing a variety of menial jobs?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Mike Lupica has written a number of sports-related books targeted for middle school kids. He is a good writer who is able to flesh out the finer details of sports and what runs through the minds of young athletes as they prepare and play in practices and sports. If middle school kids like reading sports-related books, they are most likely going to enjoy anything written by Lupica. This particular book doesn’t have any crude language or violent situations, although there is one scene involving a scuffle on the field between Darryl and Hutch. There is a secondary story about the main character and his father, which ends on an upbeat and positive note. All of the main characters are boys, so take this into consideration when you are recommending this book to middle school kids. Not surprisingly, girls may want to read a sports book involving a main character who is female.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a typical middle school baseball book which takes the main character and his team through the ups and downs as they progress through the championship bracket. The descriptions of baseball play are spot on, as are the internal ruminations of the main character as he deals with being displaced at shortstop by a better player. Middle school kids who love to play baseball will especially like this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare Hutch’s current situation with what his dad experienced as a middle school baseball player. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • How would you feel if you lost your starting position to someone other players on the team thought was a better athlete? How do you think you would respond? How should you respond?
  • Is it believable that Darryl and Hutch eventually work together to help win the championship? Is this what athletes really do on sports teams? How do most athletes you know handle this situation?
  • Explain why Hutch is embarrassed for his father. Find three examples of Hutch being embarrassed or ashamed by something his father has done.
  • How does Hutch’s mother explain his father’s job occupations? Should Hutch be proud of what his father does?
  • Write one to three pages about something exciting which happens in your favorite sport. Write the story from the point of view of the athlete at the most exciting point in the game.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a decent middle school sports book featuring baseball and the jealousies which appear when a better player suddenly joins the team. In addition, there is a parallel story line about a boy’s relationship with his father. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Otte, Kristen. (2014). The Photograph. Middletown, DE.

Summary: Rachel is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents and struggles with two problems. The first is that she doesn’t know the whereabouts of her mother, who disappeared shortly after her father died. The second problem is that she is a sophomore on the basketball team trying to figure out where she fits on the team and the team’s quest for a district championship. Rachel thinks she has found a lead to the answer to her first problem—that of locating her mother—when she finds an old photograph of her mother in her grandparents attic. But her grandparents are secretive and appear to be not telling Rachel the truth. The answer to her second problem—helping the team win a district championship—is just as problematic because even though everyone keeps telling her that she is the best player on the team, Rachel doesn’t believe it. Will she discover the mysterious secret about her mother? Can her team win the coveted district championship?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are references to kissing and another character having sex, but though Rachel and her boyfriend flirt back and forth, nothing ever goes farther than that. The mystery about her parents is quite compelling and the twist is a pleasant deviation from the typical, “Where is mom?” plot. Some readers may find the unusual choice for a light font type to be irritating. (The type is so light it’s difficult to read in low light.)

Why middle school kids should read this book: The basketball scenes are fairly well-done though sometimes they seem to last too long. Girls who love sports will resonate with this story. Because there is a second story line involving her missing mother, which is actually rather interesting, girls who aren’t into sports will still like the book. Few boys, however, will want to read this book, which is too bad.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Describe Rachel’s problems to another person. Try not to leave out important details.
  • Explain why Rachel’s grandparents did not want to tell her the truth about her parents and their relationship. Should they have told Rachel the truth sooner? Why or why not?
  • Examine Rachel’s relationship to her grandparents. How does her relationship with her grandmother differ from her relationship with her grandfather? Back-up your assertions with examples from the book.
  • Examine Rachel’s relationship with boys. How does Rachel explain her relationships?
  • If you were in Rachel’s shoes, would you want to know the truth about your parents? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: A good sports book for girls with a nice underlying message about not needing to throw yourself at boys in order to feel good about yourself. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Vernick, Audrey. (2014). Screaming at the Ump. New York: Clarion Books.

Summary: Casey is a typical twelve-year-old New Jersey boy, except that he dreams of being a journalist. His father and grandfather run one of only three umpire schools in the entire United States, and he dislikes his mother who recently remarried another man. Casey is spending his summer, as he usually does, at the umpiring school, running odd jobs and getting ready for the biggest day of umpiring school, the annual, “You suck, ump!” day in which local townspeople get to unleash their taunts and jeers on the wanna-be-umpires. But why is attendance at the umpiring school dropping? Who is the mysterious ballplayer working at becoming an umpire? Will Casey ever forgive his mother for divorcing his dad?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel is unique in the fact that it focuses on an aspect of baseball rarely found in sports books—the training of major league umpires. This is the most intriguing part of the book. And because the main character wants to become a journalist, the story ends up being as much about self-discovery as it is about sports. The book is clean of swearing or references to sexual innuendos, so you won’t have to worry about that.

This quick read has numerous topics to discuss with middle school kids—journalism ethics, capitalism and entrepreneurship, grief over a divorce, redemption after making bad decisions, and when the rules are clear and when they are more obtuse. The story starts slowly and so kids who need immediate action in their books may need prodding and encouraging to stick with it. This is a sports book which really isn’t a sports book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids are not rabid sports fans but are still rather curious about baseball, this book may appeal to them. Die-hard baseball players may find the dearth of baseball play to be unappealing, but they will be interested in the story line about the training umpires need to go through before even being considered to be worthy of a job with major league baseball.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What role does Zeke play in the story line? Why did the author include him in the story?
  • How does Casey overcome his feeling of mistrust toward his mother? Find two examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Write a two to five page story told from the point of view of J-Mac, the major league baseball player.
  • How is this book different from other sports books you have read? How is it the same?
  • List two words to describe each of these characters: Casey, Zeke, Sly, the father, the grandfather, and the mother.

Overall evaluation of this book: A unique story about umpires, journalism ethics, family divorce, and redemption. This is not an action-driven story. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Volponi, Paul. (2012). The Final Four. New York: The Penguin Group.

Summary: Malcolm is a hot-shot player from the inner city on the Michigan Spartans basketball team and Roko is a transplanted Croatian playing for the Troy Trojans. As fate happens, the Spartans and Trojans meet in the final four during March Madness and the NCAA Basketball Championships. Malcolm can’t wait to enter the NBA and views the tournaments as a time to showcase his basketball skills and Roko wants to win in order to bring a National Championship to his beloved Croatia. As they clash on one of the biggest stages in the world, each find themselves directly pitted against one another. Who will win the game? And how does each of their backgrounds prepare them for this moment?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Although all the main characters are college students, middle school kids who are obsessed with basketball will like this book. This is one of those few books which can be mutually enjoyed by both parent and child. This happens because of the constant flashbacks which help everyone understand and emphasize with the main characters. Although some adults may find a few of the situations to be clichéd, middle school kids won’t and this will open up grounds for fertile discussions.

Why middle school kids should read this book: There are many underlying themes and stories in this novel—intensity, living in the shadows of a famous name, true love, patriotism, selfishness, loss, rules, how institutions function, and the role of the individual vs. the role of the institution. Even though all of the characters are young adults, I think this book is worth the read. Kids who love basketball will find the playing scenes to be well-done and real to what actually happens in a basketball game.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare Malcolm’s background and childhood with Roko’s background and childhood. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Imagine you are either Crispin or M.J. Tell another person what it would be like to be living out their life. What would it be like?
  • Why did the author include so many flashbacks? Find at least two examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Make a list of three words to describe Malcolm, Roko, Crispin, M.J., and the coach of the Michigan State Spartans.
  • Who were the original Spartans and Trojans in history? If you don’t know, do some research to find out.

Overall evaluation of this book: A story without any adolescent characters that is as much about basketball as it is not. The basketball scenes are very well done. Five Stars ★★★★★

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