When I worked as a teacher-librarian, one of the most common questions that parents asked was how they could persuade their children to read more. Fighting back the urge to ask whether they were regular readers themselves, I usually replied that they should tune into their children's interests and then try to find books, either fiction or non-fiction, that dealt with these. For many adolescents, sport is a big part of their lives; so a new imprint from Lorimer called Sports Stories
looked promising as books that could possibly reel in reluctant readers, who, once hooked, might decide that reading wasn't so bad after all.
Sometimes it seems fashionable to sneer at series books such as R. L. Stine's hugely successful Goose Bumps or Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High books, and it would be easy to dismiss Sports Stories as just another of this sort, but that would be unfair. For a start, the books are a series only in the sense that their common theme is sports; it is highly unlikely that readers will devour every book, nor, I imagine, are they intended to do so: each book is aimed at a particular audience, interested in and knowledgeable about one sport. That aside, these four offerings do give the impression that the writers had been given a fairly specific set of guidelines. The teenage protagonist is always good at one chosen sport, and has some major problem, or series of problems, which, once overcome, leaves him or her a better and wiser person and competitor.
For Gillian, in Marion Crook's Riding Scared, riding is a new sport, and one that is causing disagreement between her divorced parents. Her father wants her to ride to increase her confidence, while her mother thinks he is trying to buy Gillian's affection. She also has to resolve a conflict with another rider, Mike, whose constant criticisms (she eventually realizes) are an attempt to gain her attention and her friendship. The other book among these four with a female protagonist, Michele Martin Bossley's Water Fight!, also deals with a young athlete who is facing problems with her family. Though she is a champion swimmer, Josie feels threatened by her older sister, Melissa, who is good at everything. These feelings come to a head when Melissa takes up swimming and when her father loses his job unexpectedly, so that Josie fears that her family can no longer afford to pay for her participation in the swimming program.
The other two books, Michael Coldwell's Camp All-Star, which is about a summer basketball camp, and Chris Forsyth's hockey story, Face Off, both have plots in which a young athlete is aiming for a place on an elite team. Jeff, the basketball player, has to overcome distractions from his weird and less than committed room-mate and some science students who are also staying at the same location, as well as coming up against players better than he has ever faced before. Mitch, the hero of Face Off, is not only pitted against his best friend, Zack, but also has to learn that there is a fine line between being confident and being arrogant.
As one would perhaps expect, all these books have upbeat endings. Parent and child are reconciled, athletic prowess is rewarded with success, friends who have fallen out see the error of their ways and make up. Only Camp All-Star flirts with the idea that not everyone is going to get what they want out of their sport. Jeff doesn't make the all-star team, but is he downhearted? No, because he knows he will be back next year with the advantage of a year's growth and experience. This does mean that for most readers the books will not represent reality, but with their stress on the necessity of hard work and dedication as well as natural talent, they allow scope for dreaming and trying out possible scenarios without being too far-fetched.
A great deal of care has been taken to make Sports Stories attractive and appealing: the covers are brightly coloured and titles are catchy, hinting of tension and triumphs to come. A similar amount of care has gone into the stories themselves: the narratives are strong and fast-paced, the sporting backgrounds are well-researched and are described in detail that is convincing without ever being intrusive or slowing down the story, and the main characters are, for the most part, both believable and sympathetic. Camp All-Star is the only exception, with its sketchy characterization and a reliance on stereotypes for humour that occasionally borders on the offensive. As for the actual writing, there is very little to complain about; though it may not be challenging, neither is it sloppy or inept.
So, did Sports Stories live up to the promise I saw in them, as books that might tempt the less than habitual reader? On the whole they did. With fifteen books in print, and more in the works, most sports have been covered and there is enough choice for even the most picky sports fanatic. A lot of effort has been put into making these books very readable and engaging, and most children will, I think, react to them positively. Parents, librarians, and teachers will all find them welcome additions to their arsenal of weapons in the fight to encourage literacy, though they may balk at the rather steep price of $8.95 for each very slender paperback.
Gillian Chan is the author of Glory Days & Other Stories (Kids Can).