You don’t need to know your layups from your line drives to love these YA books.
The buzzer-beating jump shot. The walk-off home run. The scrappy gang of underdogs who surprise themselves by making it to the conference final. We’ve seen all these sports stories before—and for good reason. Even if you’re not an athlete or much of a fan, it’s hard to deny the drama of sporting events. Two new young adult books use sports as a springboard for exciting storytelling. These tales are as much about courage, teamwork and integrity as they are about the game itself.
★ Dragon Hoops
Cartoonist and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang would be the first to admit he’s not much of a sports fan. As he confesses in his new graphic memoir, Dragon Hoops, he grew up as more of a fan of superhero stories, where you know that good will always triumph over evil. “In a well-crafted story, everything makes sense,” Yang reflects. “Which is more than I can say for sports.”
The book opens when Yang, who teaches math at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, begins to notice that the whole school is abuzz about the basketball team. Intrigued, Yang interviews Coach Lou, who tells Yang that after three straight years of losses, he is trying out a gutsy strategy—stacking his team roster with senior players—that might finally result in a state championship for the Dragons.
Over the course of the season, Yang travels with the O’Dowd Dragons, profiles many of the players (including some from the equally talented girls’ team) and offers a brief history of basketball. As he gets to know the athletes, whose personalities develop into unforgettable characters, Yang confronts tough topics, such as the racism experienced by the team’s Sikh and Chinese players.
Dragon Hoops epitomizes the best kind of storytelling possible in the comics format. Yang incorporates visual jokes that will reward careful readers and masterfully combines words and pictures to generate drama and suspense beyond what either could do independently. As his season with the Dragons comes to a close, Yang is inspired by the players and finds the courage to make a career-defining decision of his own.
★ We Are the Wildcats
Courage is also at the heart of Siobhan Vivian’s We Are the Wildcats. The action in this field hockey-centered novel takes place not over the course of an entire season but over a single 24-hour period.
It opens on a hot day in August, as a week of team tryouts culminates in a final grueling workout, after which the team’s charismatic and demanding coach will select 20 new Wildcats. Team captain Mel is eager to host the team’s first Psych-Up of the season, a mandatory all-team slumber party at which new players will receive their varsity jerseys, but this year, Coach has something else in mind. Instead of letting the girls take charge as usual, Coach sends them on an all-night odyssey, causing old tensions and resentments from the prior season’s humiliating finale to resurface, painful and raw.
Vivian’s novel unfolds through six players’ perspectives, including incoming freshman Luci (who is flattered and then outraged to be Coach’s accomplice), injured Phoebe and goalie Ali, who eventually reveals the role that racism played in the previous season’s heartbreaking loss. Creating different voices and backstories for this many primary characters isn’t easy, but Vivian does so with aplomb, giving each Wildcat a credible and memorable personality.
As the teammates gradually open up and share their experiences of Coach’s history of emotional manipulation and outright lies, they begin to imagine a new way to seize their own power and reclaim this important season for themselves.
Both Dragon Hoops and We Are the Wildcats are stories in which happy endings are not foregone conclusions, and the “good guys” aren’t guaranteed to win—but that’s part of what makes them engrossing, right up to the final play.