“Maybe more than any other sport, cross-country is about not quitting.”
Joseph has ADD, but he has a sense of humor about it: At least he doesn’t have the “H” part. Since his focus wanders, team sports are especially exasperating, and he’s not a natural athlete anyway. When he joins the cross-country team, a healthy bond is formed away from the usual teasing and frustration. Then comes a fast new girl, Heather, who is brave enough to stand up to the bullies and accepting enough to befriend Joseph exactly as he is.
With Sidetracked, debut author Diana Harmon Asher offers a story devoid of pity and replete with humor. Here, she shares the inspiration behind her heartwarming cross-country tale.
When my oldest son started running cross-country, I learned about singlets and starting guns, warmups and runners cramps, muddy trails and fartleks.
And really, what aspiring children’s book author could resist writing about a sport that has a term like “fartlek”?
The hero of my debut novel, Sidetracked, is a seventh grader named Joseph. He has Attention Deficit Disorder, he’s a terrible athlete, and he’s loaded with anxieties. Just for starters, he’s afraid of gargoyles, street sweepers and stewed prunes. To Joseph, middle school might as well be the running of the bulls. He just tries to keep up or stay out of the way or find someplace to hide.
Heather is new to Lakeview. She seems to be Joseph’s opposite—smart, fast and strong. But it’s not so easy being faster than the boys and stronger than the bullies. In fact, as Joseph puts it, “I wonder if you can be as miserable being good at something as you can being bad at it. Maybe things are reversed somehow, when you’re a girl.”
Cross-country gave me a starting point for their stories, because it’s a place where doing better than last time has a name. It’s called a “personal record.” It’s a place where boys and girls train together, where talented athletes come together with kids who have been cut from baseball and tennis and soccer, to make a team. It’s a hodgepodge of abilities, a virtual trail mix of kids, but it’s a team.
Maybe more than any other sport, cross-country is about not quitting. There’s no bench time, no timeouts, no substitutions. You run, and you try to finish. Middle school can feel like that—especially to kids with ADD and other learning differences. They’re constantly reminded that they’re not living up to expectations. But that makes what they do accomplish even more noteworthy. As my son who runs marathons and climbs mountains for fun reminds me, “easy” isn’t a story.
There’s no one tougher than a cross-country runner. But I have to admit, there are a lot of comic possibilities when you put a bunch of seventh graders in their teeny tiny shorts and singlets on a cross-country trail. I hope Sidetracked will be a fun read for kids, and I hope it encourages them to give themselves a chance. A chance to compete, even if they’re not the best. A chance to be a good friend. And I hope it gives them license to ignore the people who try to tell them who they’re supposed to be and box them in with their expectations. Because really, which of us, even as adults, feel that we’re everything we’re expected to be?
Is Joseph a great runner? No. But he’s in the race. He does the best he can, like we all do. We start slow and get better, and we try not to give up. If we’re lucky, we find our team. And however we live or run or write, it’s of value, because no one else can do it in exactly that same way.
Author photo credit Alison Sheehy Photography.