TAKEDOWN by Laura Shovan – Review by Bridget Hodder
It isn’t surprising that author Laura Shovan, who won several distinctions for her thoughtful novel-in-verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, has a new book out this week. However, fans of her last novel might be surprised to learn that the new one is about…wrestling.
So let’s begin this review by pointing out a salient fact: there’s more than one kind of wrestling.
In Middle Grade, you can wrestle on a big red mat, in a gym, surrounded by the smell and slick feel of sweat, hearing the yells of coaches and the roar of spectators. But you may also wrestle with the bigger questions of life: who you hope to become someday, who your family and friends want you to be…and who you really are. Sometimes, you may even have to do both at the same time, like Mikayla and Lev, the two Middle-Grade narrators of this fresh, surprising story.
Mikayla Delgado (called “Mickey” on the mats) learned after her parents’ divorce that the only way to get noticed by her wrestling-obsessed father is to be a real contender at the sport, like her two older brothers. So Mikayla plunged into it, heart and soul. By now, she’s worked so hard that everyone expects her to make the traveling team, which will be her chance to qualify for the State Youth Wrestling Championship.
Until the Eagles’ coach refuses to let her in, because she’s a girl.
Mikayla’s used to prejudice and unfairness, though, and she persists, joining the Eagles’ rival team, the Gladiators. There, she’s partnered with a dedicated young wrestler named Lev Sofer.
Lev is devastated when he hears he’s been matched with Mikayla. Determined to qualify for State, he worries that having a stranger for a partner–and a girl, at that–might ruin his chances. And that’s not all Lev is worried about. He’s begun to question whether the “killer instinct” fostered by their wrestling coaches is something he really wants to cultivate. Even though wrestling’s something he chose for himself, he wonderes if maybe life would be better if his family could stop spending all their time on sports competitions, and go back to the days when they used to take walks to the pond, make challah bread together, and host friends for Shabbat dinner.
Respect replaces Lev’s doubts about Mikayla, as they start working together. Until Lev sees Mikayla’s champion brother do something shocking on the mat, and his coach’s unfair treatment of Mikayla pushes Lev into a position worse than any headlock: he has a choice to make between the sport he loves, and figuring out what’s right.
In the course of this remarkable story, Lev, Mikayla, and the people around them begin to learn that wrestling, like life, doesn’t have to be about taking others down. It can be about building each other up.
In the context of today’s headlines, when many of us may wonder how to teach respect and compassion to kids bombarded by words and images that conspicuously lack those essential human traits, books like TAKEDOWN will ease the way for necessary conversations between educators, parents, and the kids they care about. Throughout the book, Mikayla and Lev struggle not only with their wrestling opponents, but with a culture of toxic masculinity that may echo uncomfortably in the hearts of many readers who have experienced it–and who may even be unknowingly perpetuating it. With unerringly realistic Middle Grade voices and situations, the author has created a space where questions about identity, differences, and unconscious privilege can safely be asked… and even answered.
Whatever you do, don’t write this off as “just a sports book”. Exciting and engaging, TAKEDOWN is in essence a subtle, multi-layered exploration of the many challenges kids face in Middle School, and how the main characters grapple with them. Ultimately, there is no single winner in this tale. Both Mikayla and Lev triumph– not because of what they do on the competition mats, but because of what they’ve learned about themselves.
A book about learning how to define yourself, not in relation to how others see you, but as you truly are.
Strongly recommended for home, school and libraries.
by Laura Shovan
Release Date: June 19, 2018
Age Range: 9 – 12
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s
Reviewer Bridget Hodder, author of THE RAT PRINCE from Macmillan/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux, looks forward to meeting you in July 2018, at nErDcamp Michigan! She and fellow FSG author Abby Cooper will be giving a talk on how to use books and the imagination to engage, support and encourage students who are facing challenges in school or at home. If you can’t make it, contact Bridget for a school visit or a free Skype session at http://www.BridgetHodder.com