DON’T LEAVE SPORTS BOOKS OUT OF THE GAME! FOR SOME STUDENTS, THEY ARE A WINDOW TO THE WORLD AND A SPARK FOR LIFELONG READING by Andrew Maraniss
When I was five years old, my grandfather mailed me my first set of baseball cards. I remember sitting on the floor of my parents’ apartment in New Jersey, sorting the cards in different ways – one day by team, the next by color. And my parents tell me I learned to read by devouring the information on the back of the cards.
A few years later, we moved to Washington, D.C., and that same grandfather, who lived in Wisconsin, subscribed me to two newsletters, Packer Report and What’s Brewing, in an attempt (successful!) to brainwash me into following his favorite teams, the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers. Not exactly fine literature, but I looked forward to receiving both papers in the mail every week, along with my subscription to Sports Illustrated.
At age 13, inspired by what I was reading, I created my own magazine, “AJ’s Sports Journal,” attempting to sell it for $1.75 (nobody bought it; I still have it). Five years later, I applied for a full-tuition sports writing scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and was lucky enough to win it. At age 36, I set out to write my first book, a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. After eight years of research, writing and rejection by agents and publishers, STRONG INSIDE was published by Vanderbilt University Press and received the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize for social justice, the first time a sports-related book had received either honor. At the suggestion of author Ruta Sepetys and Vanderbilt professor Ann Neely, I adapted it for young readers, fell in love with visiting schools, and published another sports book for young readers this fall, GAMES OF DECEPTION, on the first US Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. In February, I’ll turn in a YA biography manuscript on Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player.
I say all this to give you a sense of why I was shocked and disappointed to hear the comments of an author at a school library conference several weeks ago. In front of a room of librarians and others in the publishing business, the author said how relieved they were that a school librarian had gotten their son to “read books that aren’t about basketball.”
On one level, I understood that it was a throw-away line, meant to get a laugh. And, of course, there is a lot more to life than basketball.
But on another level, it was disheartening to hear the remark about a genre that means a lot to me and to so many young readers. I don’t think anyone at that conference would have felt comfortable demeaning graphic novels or biographies or Harry Potter or fantasy or historical fiction or funny books or books with diverse characters. One of the central tenets of Nerdy Book Club is that “all children deserve books they are interested in reading.” In my experience, school librarians also believe deeply in that concept, and would never denigrate sports books or a child’s interest in reading them.
At their best, sports books provide opportunities to explore meaningful social issues in an accessible way. The genre is full of diverse authors and characters. From Jackie Robinson, Perry Wallace and Colin Kaepernick to Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Megan Rapinoe, some of the most compelling stories in the struggle for equality in this country and around the world have taken place on athletic fields of play.
For young readers with an interest in sports, there are terrific picture books, fascinating biographies, provocative books about racial justice, fiction with female lead characters, popular series’, mysteries for early and middle grades, and graphic novels.
In the end, these books are no more about sports than Harry Potter is about magic. With sports as a hook, these books are about relatable characters struggling through school; about progress against racism, sexism and homophobia; about overcoming obstacles and dealing with love and loss. My books challenge young readers to be upstanders rather than bystanders in the face of injustice.
Sports books are worthy books, as legitimate as any other. If picking up a book with an athlete or ball on the cover sparks a student’s lifelong love of reading, that’s something to be celebrated. For me, an early interest in reading about sports paved a path directly to college and career. I know I’m not alone.
Andrew Maraniss is the New York Times bestselling author of STRONG INSIDE and GAMES OF DECEPTION and a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University Athletics, where he manages the university’s Sports & Society Initiative. He is also a contributor to ESPN’s race and sports website, TheUndefeated.com. Follow him on Twitter @trublu24.
Thanks for this post, Andrew. I’m the author of a middle grade novel, Takedown, set in the world of youth wrestling. What you say here is absolutely true, “With sports as a hook, these books are about relatable characters struggling through school; about progress against racism, sexism and homophobia; about overcoming obstacles.” I wish adults would realize, you don’t have to participate in a sport to enjoy a book with a sporty setting.
Thank you for writing this. The point of sports in books is how you play the game not about winning or losing. I always liked that about them.