The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is not only a Newbery winner, but it's also one of my favorite books of all time. Though it is a mystery, one of its main characters is a high school boy who is a track star, so there's your sports angle. With over a dozen main characters of all ages, races, and backgrounds and a story filled with clues, questions, and quirks, there's something here for everyone. I love this book. Read it now.
Maniac Magee is my favorite Jerry Spinelli book and another of my favorite Newbery winners. This may not appear to be sports-related at first, but think about it: Maniac is famous for his running ability. The story's main themes are literacy, prejudice, and community. Side note: The made-for-television movie is a pale imitation of this phenomonal book. The movie tried to be a comedy and cut out some of the book's more serious events and memorable characters.
Novels by Matt Christopher are always related to sports. He wrote over a hundred books, mainly dealing with baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. Over the decades, the Christopher empire has expanded to include trendy hobbies and extreme sports such as hockey, golf, skateboarding, snowboarding, and dirt bike racing. The plots are pretty straightforward: playing in the big game, getting injured before playoffs, trying to make the team, and having a parent for a coach. If you have a reluctant reader who is into sports, give these a try. Middle schoolers might find these books too easy, but I've seen them kickstart kids' reading habits more than once. Matt Christopher has also written a plethora of sports biographies which kids read for fun, to learn about their favorite players, and for biography assignments in class.
Many of The Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin include team sports and individual sports. Kristy and Jessi are the most athletic baby-sitters. Kristy's a self-proclaimed tomboy who loves watching and playing sports. She even has a youth baseball team called Kristy's Krushers. Jessi is a highly dedicated ballerina. Throughout the entire series, BSC showed their main characters and supporting characters training, playing, and competing in all sorts of sports. Whether competing in gymnastics, swimming, or horseback riding, the BSC always emphasized fair play and the fact that everyone's a winner.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson follows Astrid through a summer at roller derby camp. It's her first attempt at the sport, so she falls down a lot and gets bruised a lot, but she works really hard and improves so much, all because she wants to, because she thinks it's fun and because she wants to get better. How awesome to have a protagonist who is self-motivated. This realistic and refreshing graphic novel is recommended for tweens, especially those who like Raina Telgemeier's works. Read my review of the graphic novel.
Dare I include The Gymnasts series from the early '90s? Yes, yes, I dare, because although it perhaps depicted a more idealized life than that really experienced by hardcore young gymnasts, I can't recall another juvenile series that deals exclusively with gymnastics. Written by Elizabeth Levy, this series followed a group of girls who became fast friends through the trials and tribulations of gymnastic practices and meets. Start with book #1, Beginners.
The Julie books by Megan McDonald, part of the American Girls line, take place in 1974. In Meet Julie, after her parents get divorced, Julie moves to another part of San Francisco with her older sister Tracy and her artsy mom, who runs a shop called Gladrags. Shortly after Julie starts fourth grade at Jack London Elementary School, she learns that they don't have a basketball team for girls so she asks if she can join the boys' team. The coach initially refuses her request, but Julie sticks to her guns. She learns about Title IX and turns in a petition with 150 signatures on it. The coach still refuses to hear her out, so she works up the nerve to talk to her principal about the situation and earns a spot on the team. Later books in the series, such as Julie Tells Her Story, include basketball practice and games. Learn more about the series.
Julie's best friend Ivy, who is a gymnast, has her own book: Good Luck, Ivy by Lisa Yee. In 1976, Ivy must decide between competing in a gymnastics meet or attending family reunion . . . unless she can think of a way to do both! Learn more about this book.
Lisa Yee has also written three contemporary interconnected novels which have sporty themes: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (in which the title character is a reluctant participant in summer volleyball), Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (in which the title character would rather play basketball than study), and So Totally Emily Ebers (in which the title character also plays summer volleyball). Learn more about Lisa Yee's books.
Back to gymnastics. Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas puts the spotlight on 13-year-old Joey Jordan, a girl whose love for gymnastics knows no bounds. However, her friends and family are no longer as invested in the sport as she is. Her older sister, Julia, was a title-winning gymnast who retired at the age of 16. Her best friend, Alex, is also a great gymnast but doesn't want to do it any longer. Her parents are financially supportive but emotionally disconnected from the sport, not wanting Joey to go through everything Julia went through. Joey's drive is admirable, especially considering the odds she's up against at home and in the gym, and her summer story is sweet, balancing her practices and meets with her first crush, her friends, and her family. Read my full-length review of Gold Medal Summer. Read my interview with Donna Freitas.
Gold Medal Winter was Donna Freitas' next YA novel. 16-year-old Esperanza (Espi) has loved figure skating since she was a little girl. Thanks to the support of her dedicated mother and her amazing coach, who was an Olympic gold medalist, she is able to realize her dream. Due to her consistently outstanding performances and her excellent spins and footwork, she lands a spot on the Olympic team. Some teammates attempt to psych her out while others (including two boys her age who are also athletes) vie for her attention. Add in all of the press, scheduling, and travel, not to mention her mother being denied admittance to the Games due to her visa status, and Espi nearly gets overwhelmed. When she focuses back in on what she loves - skating, the feeling she gets when she lands a jump or when she's simply gliding on the ice - she is able to rise to heights she never expected. Populated with a wonderfully diverse cast led by a Dominican girl with a heart of gold and fueled by positive messages about working hard and staying true to yourself, Gold Medal Winter is a winning story. I only wish the skating passages had been more descriptive; as with most books dealing with art (be it music, acting, a competition, any sort of performance or action) I always wish I could see and hear and feel more of those important events, especially when they take place at the climax of the story.
The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes by Anne Mazer is an ongoing series about a girl who loves to collect page-a-day calendars, play soccer, and write in her journal in purple pen. Like Skye O'Shea, she has older sisters who are twins. One is a star athlete, and the other is a lawyer-in-training. Like Alice MacLeod, she has a younger brother who is super-smart. Stuck in the middle, Abby really wants to stand out in her own way. The series deals with different events at her school and her home, such as putting on a play or missing a friend who has moved away. There's a moral to every story, but without being too syrupy-sweet.
Now we're into the slightly older part of the list, with stories set in middle school and high school.
With her second novel, Taylor Morris comes out swinging. Total Knockout: Tale of an Ex-Class President has sports, school, family, and politics. After becoming class president for the third year in a row, Lucia bends some rules and gets impeached. She's shocked and determined to get her title back. Lucia's also a boxer who has regular bouts with her best friend Cooper. Read more about the book.
Janette Rallison has written two sports-related books for young readers: Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws, the story of a friendship tested by competition on and off the court, and Playing the Field, about an eighth-grader who has to get a tutor and raise his algebra grade in order to stay on the baseball team.
Megan Shull has also written multiple stories about young athletes. In Yours Truly, Skye O'Shea, Skye enters middle school and is nearly overwhelmed by her homework, her first crush, and her hockey practice. Skye really loves hockey, but she worries that she'll never be as skilled or as smart as her older sisters. In Skye's the Limit, Skye decides to go to an outdoor camp in Vancouver. Far from home, her inner and physical strength are tested as she battles homesickness, makes new friends, learns how to kayak, and bicycles her heart out. In The Swap, a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl swap bodies a la Freaky Friday; he, like his brothers, is a lifelong hockey player while she is a soccer player. Read my full-length review of The Swap.
Learn more about all of Megan's books.
In No Cream Puffs by Karen Day, Madison becomes the first girl in Southern Michigan to join a boys' baseball team. She has to prove herself not only to her teammates but to her friends, her family, and her town. Set in 1980, I recommend this book to athletes of both genders. Read my full-length review.
Cassie, a member of The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick, moves to a town that doesn't have a hockey team for girls. With the help of two new friends and one girl's older brother, she tries out for the boys' team. When she makes the team, Cassie is thrilled and her friends are happy, but some jealous kids and their parents are upset, and her famous supermodel mother doesn't know what to do. This isn't the main plotline of the book, but it is extremely nice to see a girl playing what is commonly thought of as a sport for boys - and not doing it to make a statement, but because she loves it.
All right, teens: The next set of books are for you.
There are plenty of books - and movies too, for that matter - which focus on athletes training for the big game or competition, only to have accidents! injuries! obstacles! interfere in act three. Luckily, they tend to pull through and win the championship or gold medal, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right?
Thankfully, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley is more thoughtful and less predictable than those stories. The girl in question, Syrah Cheng, is recovering from a snowboarding accident. What will it take for her to get back on that board again? Read my entire review!
In The Truth About Forever, my favorite novel by Sarah Dessen, running is a major theme, both literally and figuratively. Macy's father loved to run and got both of his daughters interested in the sport. Though her older sister Caroline stopped competing in track and field events in the seventh grade, Macy kept training with her father and going to meets. One morning, the day after Christmas, Macy's father dropped dead while jogging. Macy quit the team and packed up her awards. She thought she'd stopped running forever, but then she met Wes and learned two important things: you can't run from the truth, and you can't run from yourself. Read my reviews of all of Dessen's novels.
A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti also features a runner. Annabelle, a senior in high school, attempting to cope with the emotional aftershocks of a violent event, decides to run from from Seattle to Washington, D.C. A heartbreaking, memorable story about loss, survivor's guilt, and endurance.
A fun book featuring a runner: Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs. Phoebe must move to Greece in preparation for her mother's second marriage. There, she learns that Greek gods are alive and well, and so are their descendants, which include her stepdad and her classmates. Though this book is obviously a fantasy, it also has realistic drama. It's part The Truth About Forever, part Percy Jackson and the Olympians. After you've read OMG, read the sequel, Goddess Boot Camp. Click over to my review of Oh. My. Gods.
Amazing Grace by Megan Shull is an absolutely sweet story about a tennis pro who takes a much-needed break from it all. This book made me smile. Readers can't help but root for Grace to find her way. Find out more about Grace!
Elisa in Undercover by Beth Kephart is intelligent and quiet. She has a talent for writing and poetry, so she writes notes for boys in her class to give to the girls they like. Once she takes her mother's old skates down to a frozen pond, she discovers a new talent: ice skating. She tries to keep these talents hidden, but, bit by bit, a classmate, a teacher, and hopefully, finally, her family will discover them - will discover her. Read my entire review of Undercover at YA Book Central.
Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best by Maria Padian details one summer in the lives of two best friends: Henry (short for Henriette), a fantastic tennis player, and Eva, a gifted ballerina. Opposite in many ways, the girls are fiercely loyal to one another. Henry and Eva's time at separate summer camps specializing in their professional passions will test their minds and their bodies, but their friendship will prove to be unbreakable. Read my interview with the author.
In the verse novel Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, Anke's father verbally (and otherwise) abuses her mother, older brother, and older sister - but not her. Instead, he simply ignores her, as if she were a piece of furniture. Anke enters high school and finds herself (in more ways that one) on the volleyball court. Highly recommended. Read my interview with the author. Related Booklists: Verse Novels and Tough Issues for Teens.
Jordan Sonnenblick has a knack for writing realistic fiction featuring teen guys as the protagonists. Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip follows Peter Friedman through his first year of high school. Peter has been a dedicated baseball player since he was little, always playing alongside his best friend AJ, but the summer before he starts high school, he sustains an injury which makes him unable to pitch...ever again. Frustrated and hurting inside and out, he finds himself turning to photography, a craft he learned from his grandfather. As his hobby turns into a passion and leads him to a new friend (a wonderful character named Angelika), Peter becomes a sports photographer for his school. Meanwhile, he finds himself lying to AJ about the extent of his injury, and covering for his beloved grandfather, who is becoming senile. Poignant and realistic, this is a solid story that will inspire honesty and hope.
When the book Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston begins, Hermione Winters, a senior in high school, heads off to cheer camp with her coach and her teammates, including Polly, her best friend and co-captain, and Leo, her boyfriend. Knowing this will be the last time she attends the camp, Hermione intends to make it the best one ever, to work hard, to enjoy the challenges and the routines and the music and the friendships, and to set a good example for her teammates and friends. Then, on the night of the camp dance, Hermione is raped - her cup of punch drugged by a boy, she blacks out and wakes up in the hospital. The night holds no memories for her past the blackout. She cannot remember the face of her attacker, nor does she have any recollection of what he actually did to her. All she knows is what the doctors, nurses, and detectives have put together from examining her. There are many things I love about this book, including the fact that it encourages cheerleaders to be seen as athletes, not airheads. The writing is terrific, and readers will definitely be cheering for Hermione. Read my full-length review of the book.
Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock tells the story of a girl named D.J. who has to pick up the slack on her family's farm when her father's injuries prevent him from doing the bulk of the work. Her two older brothers, now away at college, were big hometown football stars. Could D.J. follow in their footsteps? Give Dairy Queen and its sequel The Off-Season to girls you know who refuse to back down when coaches tell them girls shouldn't play football or shouldn't be allowed to play on all-male teams - and tell them that YES, THEY CAN! Just say no to gender bias, I say. Click here and here for additional posts about disproving and overcoming gender-based assumptions. Continue reading my review of the D.J. books.
If you like Dairy Queen and The Off-Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, then you'll like the PrettyTOUGH books by Liz Tigelaar. The tagline for the series is perfect: Who says you can't be both pretty AND tough? In the first book, PrettyTOUGH, two very different sisters play on the same soccer team, one of whom would rather be surfing. The second book, Playing with the Boys, takes place at the same school with a different protagonist. Shortly after moving to town and starting a new school year, Lucy tries out for the soccer team. She doesn't make it, but the letdown is replaced by surprise when she's recruited for the boys' football team due to her awesome kicking ability. After she gets a crash course in football - and a quick crush on a popular boy - Lucy has to prove herself to her classmates, her teammates, her coach, and her widowed father. Read my interview with the author.
Take note: The PrettyTOUGH books, though fictional, are associated with the real-life girls-and-sports association PrettyTOUGH. Both the books and the association encourage young women to try out for sports teams and go for their goals. Girls CAN be both pretty and tough, both on and off of the field!
Along the same lines comes Throwing Like a Girl by Weezie Kerr Mackey, the story of a girl who joins the softball team at her new school. As they practice, Ella starts to bond with her coach and her teammates as well as a slightly older girl who used to be on the team. A nice story which values family and teamwork.
Rash by Pete Hautman surprised me with its inclusion of sports. The story, though continuous, has three definite sections to it. I preferred the first portion because I liked the set-up and the setting of the dystopic future. Deb's son may like the second portion, with its football storyline. Running is also discussed in detail.
Jake, Reinvented by Gordon Korman is a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby. In this story, Jake, the high school version of Jay Gatsby, becomes the long snapper on the football team. I greatly prefer The Great Gatsby, but this book may act as a stepping stone to the classic for those who might initially refuse to pick up Gatsby. (Please, please, read The Great Gatsby!)
I consider dancing a sport, and I have created a separate booklist for dancing.
This list was initially created for Deb and her son in middle school. I then added titles for other age groups.
I can think of many other sports stories which I have not read, so I'll post some of those titles in the comments below.