The Competition Begins (Junior Ninja Champion series) by Catherine Hapka

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Ty, Kevin, Mackenzie, Izzy, and JJ all have different reasons to want to audition for the Junior Ninja Champion show.  When they hear that local tryouts are being held nearby, they come together at Ty’s parents’ gym for kids to practice. Tara, a contestant from the National Ninja Show comes on board as their coach.  Each kid struggles with his or her own challenges, both on the course and off of it.  The story takes the team through two rounds of competition; they all make it through the first round, but only three are chosen to go on to the next one, which will be covered in book 2, coming out in January.  Includes an interview with American Ninja Warrior competitor Allyssa Beird.  176 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  A pretty quick read for sports and reality TV show fans that not only delves into the sports action but covers the kids’ emotional ups and downs as well.

Cons:  I was expecting more action and a faster pace from a book about kids competing to be ninjas.

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Out of Left Field by Ellen Klage

Published by Viking

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Summary:  Katy Gordon is the star pitcher of her 1957 neighborhood baseball team.  One afternoon, wearing a jersey and cap and being called “Gordon” by the boys, she’s invited by a Little League scout to a tryout.  She makes the team, but when one of the other boys tells the coach that she’s a girl, she’s promptly kicked off.  Supported by her chemistry professor mother, she writes to Little League headquarters, but receives a disappointing response that includes the sentence, “Since the beginning of baseball as an organized sport, it has always been the sole province of male athletes.”  When Katy is assigned a research project at school, she decides to research women in baseball and is shocked to learn how many women have played since the beginning of the game.  Her project gets her some local attention, a story in the paper, and the chance to strike out Willie Mays, but even that isn’t enough to get her back into Little League.  In the end, she’s back to the neighborhood team; the final scene shows her reaching out to a younger girl who wants to play as well.  Includes information about the women Katy researches; an author’s note; a glossary; and additional resources.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Katy is a spunky narrator who will have boys and girls rooting for her in her campaign against the unfair Little League rules.  There are plenty of other interesting historical details, from Katy’s mother’s fight against McCarthyism at her university job to Katy receiving one of the new Frisbees for her birthday.

Cons:  On page 245, Katy’s friend Jules dismisses the Nancy Drew mysteries in this way: “They’re all about the same. Nancy has adventures, her chums get into trouble, Ned rescues them all (emphasis mine), and the mystery gets solved along the way.”  Having read more than 40 Nancy Drew books in my childhood, I feel safe in saying Nancy rescued Ned at least as often as the other way around.

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Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) by Hena Khan, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

Published by Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Fourth grader Zayd dreams of making the gold team in basketball, but he feels like he’s got a long way to go.  For one thing, he’s the shortest kid in his class and weighs less than 60 pounds.  For another, his mother is thrilled he’s been asked to join advanced orchestra and is certain his future lies with playing the violin.  When Zayd discovers his friends are coming to school early for extra basketball practice, he makes up a story to skip early-morning orchestra and plays with them instead.  His mom catches him eventually, and Zayd is grounded for two weeks…with basketball tryouts just nine days away.  Zayd is sure he’s doomed to play another season on the D team until his uncle gives him some useful advice about how to follow his dream.  144 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An exciting, true-to-life sports story with interesting glimpses into Zayd’s Pakistani-American family and their culture.  Matt Christopher fans not quite ready for Mike Lupica will enjoy getting to know Zayd and can look forward to at least two more books in this series.

Cons:  Readers may wish for a little more actual sports action.  It looks like this may be coming in book 2.

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The Field by Baptiste Paul, pictures by Jacqueline Alcantara

Published by NorthSouth Books

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Summary:  A group of enthusiastic children starts a soccer game on a grassy field in St. Lucia, shooing away a group of cows and building their own goal posts.  Passersby lean on the fence around the field, watching the action.  Even a rainstorm doesn’t stop the game, as the players take off their shoes and socks to slip, slide, and belly flop in the mud.  Finally, the mamas call everyone in for dinner; the children go home, but continue to dream about futbol as they sleep.  Includes an author’s note about his childhood playing soccer in St. Lucia and a list of Creole words and phrases used in the story.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Soccer fans will love the action in both the illustrations and the clipped text, interspersed with Creole words.  Even those not familiar with the game will enjoy the sense of play radiating from each scene.

Cons:  The text could have flowed a bit more smoothly.

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Knockout by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  In these sequel to House Arrest, Levi, the sickly baby from the first book, is now in 7th grade.  Timothy, his older brother and the protagonist of book one, is applying to medical school.  Levi’s health has improved, but he still has some limitations, and his mother and brother tend to be overprotective.  His divorced dad is more laid-back and encourages Levi to try a sport. When Levi has a few sessions at the boxing gym, he proves to be a natural.  He ends up lying to both parents in order to continue pursuing the sport. In addition, his tendencies to be the class clown are pushing away his best friend, Tam, who is spending a lot of time with a new girl.  A medical crisis forces Levi to be honest with his friends and family, and to look at what is most important to him and what he can do to move in a new direction. 288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of K. A. Holt’s other books, as well as Kwame Alexander’s Booked, The Crossover, and Rebound will enjoy this fast-paced sports-themed novel in verse.  

Cons:  It took me a little while to warm up to Levi and get engaged in his story.

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Dream Big: A True Story of Courage and Determination by Dave McGillivray, with Nancy Feehrer, illustrated by Ron Himler

Published by Nomad Press

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Summary:  As a child, Dave McGillivray aspired to be an athlete, but he was too small for most sports.  On his 12th birthday, he decided to try a new sport, running, and ended up running 12 miles.  Encouraged by his grandfather, he ran 13 miles on his 13th birthday, and continued that pattern for four more years.  At age 17, he announced he was ready for the Boston Marathon, but his lack of training caught up with him, and he collapsed at mile 18.  His grandfather encouraged him again, advising him that big dreams require hard work, and Dave promised him he’d cross the finish line the following year.  Sadly, his grandfather died before that marathon, and Dave almost gave up before the end of the race.  Taking a break at mile 21, he realized he was resting next to his grandfather’s cemetery.  This inspired him to finish the race, and he has continued to run it every year since.  Now he runs it two ways, as the director of the race and as the final runner, traversing the course at night after everyone else has finished.  Includes a challenge to run 26 miles, read 26 books, and do 26 acts of kindness in 26 weeks.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Just in time for marathon day, this inspiring story encourages kids to work hard and challenge themselves in a variety of ways.

Cons:  Reading 26 books seems a LOT easier than running 26 miles.

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Rising Above: Inspiring Women in Sports by Gregory Zuckerman with Gabriel and Elijah Zuckerman

Published by Philomel Books

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Summary:  When I reviewed the book Rising Above in 2016, one of my “Cons” was that it only included one woman.  From my lips to the Zuckermans’ ears, apparently, because they’re back with more inspiring sports stories, this time profiling 10 women in 9 chapters (Serena and Venus Williams share).  A variety of sports is included: gymnastics, soccer, basketball, baseball, track, surfing, and mixed martial arts (a sport I was blissfully unaware of until I read this book). The common element in all the stories is the difficulty each athlete had to overcome to reach her full potential.  These include racism (Wilma Rudolph), losing a limb (Bethany Hamilton), an eating disorder (Ronda Rousey), and being one of the only females in a sport (Mo’ne Davis in Little League). An afterword summarizes the personality traits that helped all of these women succeed. Includes an extensive bibliography and an index.  224 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Based on the heavy circulation of the first book in my libraries, I have no doubt this one will fly off the shelves.  Even non-sports fans like myself can’t help but be inspired by these athletes’ stories.

Cons:  My other “con” for the first book was that there were no pictures, and that remains true for this one.  I had never heard of some of these women, and had to keep going to YouTube for visuals.

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Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  Growing up in segregated North Carolina, Ernie Barnes wasn’t allowed to go to art museums.  He loved to draw, though, and his mother often took him with her when she worked at a wealthy lawyer’s house so that Ernie could see the paintings hanging on the walls.  In high school, his size caught the attention of the football coach, and he did well enough on the team to earn 26 college scholarships.  After college, he played professionally, but his first love was always art.  In 1964, he quit football to pursue painting full time, eventually winning fame for his portrayal of sports scenes (he was the official artist of the 1984 Olympics) and African Americans that he remembered from his childhood.  Includes an historical note, notes from the author and illustrator, and a substantial list of additional resources.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The large, beautiful illustrations by Bryan Collier pay homage to Ernie Barnes, and include copies of some of his work.  Barnes’s story is an inspiration to follow your dreams.

Cons:  Although a few of Barnes’s works are reproduced with the endnotes, Sugar Shack, one of his most famous that is mentioned several times in the notes, isn’t shown.

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Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Micha Archer

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Bobbi Gibb had to wear a skirt to school, and she wasn’t allowed to join the track team.  But when she got home, she headed outside to run as much as she liked.  Bobbi grew up near Boston, and after seeing the Boston Marathon one year, she decided to train.  Running in nurses’ shoes (there were no women’s running shoes at the time), she sometimes covered 40 miles in a day; yet her application for the marathon was rejected with a letter saying “women are not physiologically able to run twenty-six miles”.  Undaunted, Bobbi bought herself a baggy sweatshirt and some boys’ running shoes and snuck into the 1966 race.  Other runners cheered her on, as did spectators along the course.  Despite painful blisters from her new shoes, Bobbi crossed the finish line after three hours and twenty minutes, 124th in a field of over 400 racers.  The final page shows Bobbi leading other female runners across a field emblazoned with the names of other women winners of the Boston Marathon.  Includes an afterword and brief bibliography. 32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Readers will be inspired by Bobbi’s hard work and perseverance in challenging the status quo and achieving her goal.  Unique mixed media collage illustrations often include place names to show the routes that Bobbi ran when she trained and in the marathon.

Cons:  A photo or two with the afterword would have been a nice addition.

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Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  As a skinny, frail child, Friedrich Mueller loved athletics, but frequently was too sick to play.  Although he was a good student, he left university to join a circus where his career as an acrobat helped him get stronger.  When the circus folded, Friedrich worked as an artists’ model and learned more about bodybuilding.  At the age of 20, he changed his name to Eugen Sandow and launched his career as a showman.  When he beat famous strongmen Sampson and Cyclops on a London stage, he became an overnight sensation, eventually traveling to America, where his performance at the Chicago World’s Fair increased his celebrity status.  Back in London, he focused on helping others become physically strong and healthy.  He held the Great Competition, the first organized bodybuilding contest, awarding a gold statue with his likeness, a version of which is still used today.  Includes an afterword with more information, four exercises for kids to try, an author’s note about his own bodybuilding experiences, and an extensive bibliography.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Humorous illustrations and lighthearted text combine to make this a fun biographical read.

Cons:  The fact that Sandow died at age 58 makes me question his health advice.

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