The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Published by Kids Can Press

Summary:  When Deo is forced to flee his home in Burundi, he gets separated from his family and eventually ends up in a refugee camp in Tanzania.  Life there is difficult and sometimes scary, with a bully named Remy who forces the other kids to hand over their meager possessions to him.  Deo tries to make a soccer ball from banana leaves like the one he had back home, but Remy discovers it and takes it away.  One day, a man comes to camp with a leather soccer ball and starts organizing the kids into teams.  Deo and Remy end up on the same team and work together to score the winning goal.  It’s the beginning of a friendship; that and the soccer games sustain Deo until he is able to return home to his family and a chance to coach kids from his village.  Includes information and photos of the real Deo (see above); information about organizations that help kids learn how to trust each other and play together; and a paragraph called “What You Can Do”.  32 pages; grades 2-7.

Pros:  Another excellent entry from Kids Can Press’s CitizenKid series, introducing readers to other young people from around the world and showing them ways they can make a difference.

Cons:  The small font and large amount of text on each page may make this a more challenging read-aloud book.

Martina and Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist

Published by Candlewick Press

Summary:  During the 1970’s and 1980’s, women’s tennis was dominated by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  Although they were staunch competitors and from countries that were engaged in a cold war (the U.S. and Soviet Union-controlled Czechoslovakia), the two were friends off the court and remain so to this day.  In the early years, Chrissie won the most; then Martina got more serious, and was ultimately victorious more times over the course of their careers.  But the important takeaway from their rivalry isn’t winning or losing, but how each one pushed and encouraged the other to be a better player and a better person.  Includes a three-page annotated timeline, a paragraph about both women’s lives after tennis, and a page of sources.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The fast-paced, chatty writing will engage readers who may have never heard of these two tennis superstars from a generation ago.  Lessons on hard work and good sportsmanship can effortlessly be extracted from their story.  And don’t worry, Series of Unfortunate Events illustrator Helquist has rendered both players more Violet Baudelaire than Count Olaf.

Cons:  “The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports” is arguably a bit of an overstatement.

Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by London Ladd

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  Bernard lives in Boston and is “crazy, crazy, crazy” about the Red Sox.  He wants them to win, but his mom tells him they have to root for colored players.  It’s 1959, and Boston has the not-so-proud distinction of being the last team in the MLB to integrate.  Jackie Robinson has been retired for two years, and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are big stars on other teams.  Bernard follows the “Negro stars” on the Celtics and Bruins teams, but the Red Sox remain all white.  Then, during spring training, he hears about Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a new player in the minor leagues.  Bernard prays that Pumpsie will move up, and in July, it finally happens.  The whole family crowds around the radio to listen to his first game, and when he finally gets up in the eighth inning, Dad wipes tears away as he tells Bernard he can never forget this moment.  The next day, the whole family goes to Fenway to watch Pumpsie, and “for once, the stands are packed with colored faces.”  When Green hits a triple, it feels like a combination of New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, and Bernard sees celebrations going on all the way back home.  Includes an author’s note and four additional sources.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An interesting look at a little-known chapter in the story of baseball integration.  The realistic paintings of the action at Fenway Park will be enjoyed by Red Sox fans.  And all fans should know the shameful history of Boston’s segregationist policies, led by Tom Yawkey, the 44-year owner of the team and namesake of Fenway’s Yawkey Way.

Cons:  No photos.

The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life by Kwame Alexander, photographs by Thai Neave

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Kwame Alexander begins this book with his own athletic journey from basketball to football to tennis, where he finally found the sport that made him a high school champion.  After this introduction, the book is divided into four quarters, like a game, entitled Grit, Motivation, Focus, and Teamwork.  Each section begins with a profile of an athlete who personifies that trait, then there are 13 rules, each one accompanied by a drawing or photo of an athlete, and an inspirational quote.  Alexander refers to the rules as “poems”, but that feels like a bit of a stretch.  The quotes are mostly from athletes, but a few other celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama are included. 176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Anyone looking for a little inspiration will find plenty of it in these pages.  Young athletes will particularly enjoy the sports stories and quotes.  The sharp black, orange, and gray graphics are similar to the covers of Alexander’s books “The Crossover” and “Booked”.

Cons:  This feels more like a graduation gift or self-help seminar than an actual reading experience.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Which American sporting event drew the biggest crowd in 1911?  The World Series?  An Olympic event? (Wait, there weren’t even any Olympic games in 1911).  The Harvard-Yale football game?  Well, you’re half right; it was the football match between Harvard and the Carlisle Indian School football team, starring Olympian Jim Thorpe.  Final score: 18-15, Carlisle.  You might know Carlisle Indian School as a place where Native American children were sent, often unwillingly, to be taught to assimilate into white culture.  But it also had an amazing football team, coached by Pop Warner, that pretty much reinvented the modern game of college football.  You might know Jim Thorpe as the Olympian who had to return his medals when he was discovered to have played professional baseball.  But there is much, much more to his story, including an amazing football career at Carlisle that spanned seven years, and was capped by a win at West Point, playing against a team that included Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley.  The symbolism of the soldiers versus the Indians was not lost on anyone, and the story of Thorpe and the Carlisle school is also the tragic story of racism that Native Americans are still experiencing today.  Includes 33 pages of source notes and works cited.  288 pages; grades 5-10.

Pros: The stories of Thorpe, the Carlisle School, Pop Warner, and the game of football are all told in an engaging style that captures the reader’s attention from beginning to end.  I bet we’ll see this book on the Sibert Award list, if not the Newbery.

Cons:  Although I attended every football game through high school and college as a member of the marching band, I am still too clueless to understand even the simplest schematic illustrating some of the plays described in the book.

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  When Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle emerged from the water on August 6, 1926, she became both the first woman to swim the English Channel and the fastest person, shaving almost two hours off the previous record.  Admittedly, she was a superstar swimmer, having won three Olympic medals and set 29 records in events ranging from 50 yards to half a mile.  But she was also a product of her time, riding the wave of women’s increased participation in sports and freedom that allowed her to wear a two-piece bathing suit very different from the head-to-toe coverage women swimmers had to put up with just a generation earlier.  Trudy’s swim made her a celebrity, and the final illustration shows her resting on her hotel bed, surrounded by the four ham sandwiches she ate after her swim, with newspapers carrying her story pressed against the windows.  An afterword gives more details about the swim and Trudy’s life afterward (she completely lost her hearing by age 22, taught swimming to deaf children for many years, and lived to the age of 98), and there are plenty of additional resources listed.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  As someone who has read America’s Champion Swimmer by David S. Adler to many classes, I thought there was little need for another picture book biography of Gertrude Ederle.  But veteran sportswriter Sue Macy has brought the story to life magnificently, placing it in the historical context of American women, propelled by getting the right to vote, enjoying greater freedoms and opportunities.  The illustrations have a you-are-there boldness that add a lot to the text.

Cons:  Endpapers giving a timeline of 1920’s sports history will be covered by the taped-down dust jacket of library books.

Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet by Jonah Winter, illustrated by C. F. Payne

Published by Schwartz and Wade

Summary:  Right from the author’s note before the title page, it is clear that Mickey Mantle was a flawed character.  The note mentions the poverty and abuse that marred his childhood, as well as the alcoholism that led to his death at the age of 63.  But it is equally clear that Mantle was an amazing baseball player, chosen to replace the legendary Joe DiMaggio on the New York Yankees, and a winner of baseball’s Triple Crown in 1956 (league leader in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s), a feat not achieved by DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Hank Aaron.  He could belt powerful home runs from either the left or the right, and could run from home plate to first base in 2.9 seconds…until a debilitating knee injury raised his time to 3.1.  Plagued by injuries, he still led his team to the World Series 12 times, and, although fans knew he wasn’t perfect, they cheered him on for 17 years.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  The large full-color illustrations bring Mantle’s story to life, told in a conversational voice with a slight Oklahoma (Mantle’s home state) twang.

Cons:  I could have enjoyed a seeing a photo or two.