The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the scourge of sexism are front and center in these stories of talented, fierce girls who find collective power on and off the field. These powerful YA novels celebrate sports, friendship and the pursuit of justice. Read them and cheer!
At 16 years old and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Mara Deeble has a few chips on her well-muscled shoulders, thanks to the suppressed anger she wrangles every day in the affecting, funny and timely Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin, a writer on the CW show “Riverdale” and author of 2018’s Ship It.
Mara’s got a three-pronged strategy to escape her conservative rural Oregon hometown. Step 1: Win a basketball scholarship. Step 2: Go to college in Portland. Step 3: Come out. For now, however, the pressure of her all-important plans and the time it’s taking to implement them is wearing her down. So, too, are her mother’s insistence that she attend church clad in a dress and heels and her frustration at having crushes she knows she can never act on.
To top it all off, Mara gets booted from her beloved basketball team for fighting, and Coach Joyce says she can’t return unless she succeeds on another team—sans violence. Mara scornfully deems volleyball too girly, what with all the hair ribbons and giggling, so she joins the football team instead. Her brother, Noah, and her BFF, Quinn, are on it, and the three of them have been playing together since childhood. What could go wrong?
Well. She’s spent years acting like just another one of the guys, so as Mara begins to actually excel on the gridiron, she’s surprised when her teammates’ sexism turns on her with full, resentful force. Even worse, four volleyball girls—including Mara’s frenemy, Carly, and crush, Valentina—join the team. Suddenly Mara’s a role model whether she likes it or not. (Reader, she does not.)
A newcomer to town named Jupiter, who is an older, out lesbian, helps Maya reframe some of her own biases. She offers empathy even as she notes that the way Maya’s mother gatekeeps femininity is not all that different from how Mara stereotypes the volleyball girls. Jupiter also serves as a lovely, hope-inspiring example of what life could be like for Mara and her queer classmates someday.
Along with suspenseful and exciting gameplay, Like Other Girls features a winning mix of coming-of-age revelations, fun romantic subplots and thought-provoking musings on what it really means to be comfortable with yourself as part of a family, a community and a team.
Like Mara, high school junior and field hockey star Zoe Alamandar has a plan in Dangerous Play. She’ll lead her team to New York state field hockey championships victory, impress a scout from and get a full ride to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and bid her central New York hometown a hearty farewell.
After a summer of training the team with co-captain Ava at her side, Zoe’s feeling pretty great about her chances for success. Her teammates are united in their shared goal. She’s had fun working at her uncle’s ice cream shack with her best friend, Liv. Her dad has been dealing with lingering pain from a work accident but has been more upbeat lately. Zoe might even get up the nerve to talk to her crush, a boy named Grove.
In Dangerous Play, debut author Emma Kress demonstrates with devastating realism just how quickly things can change. When Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, her optimism and confidence are crushed under the weight of PTSD, and her bright “fockey”-filled future now seems impossibly far away.
Kress, who has worked as a sexual violence peer counselor, writes in her author’s note that she “wanted to examine what happens to a group of girls and their community when rape culture goes unchecked.” She has created a memorable portrait of a girl who struggles with her new reality as emotions roll over her like so much rough surf.
But what if the team could prevent the same thing from happening to other girls? Vengeance takes center stage as a new mission generates excitement and controversy among the girls. They’re an adventurous bunch (parkour is a beloved team hobby), but how far is too far? And who gets to decide what equals justice?
Dangerous Play celebrates female friendship with wit, heart and plenty of pulse-pounding field hockey action as the championship game draws ever closer. Readers will root for Zoe, her teammates and their families as they strive to find common ground: “We’re all strands of yarn and gradually . . . we knit together and become something. Something bigger.”