Lupica, Mike. The Underdogs.
Will is a small but fast football player whose father was a high school football star until a tragic and career-ending knee injury. They live in Forbes, a small Pennsylvania town that has seen better days. The big employer in the area, a show company, closed years ago, and the town has never recovered. Now, they can't even afford the $10,000 to fund the local Pop Warner type football team on which Will was planning on playing. Luckily, Will won't give up and writes to New Balance shoes to see if they will sponsor the team... and they agree to. The only problem is that so many people are leaving the town that it's hard to get people to play. Many people move to Castle Rock to work in the bottled water plant there, and some kids even go there to play on the soccer team. Will manages to round up other kids to play... including Hannah Grayson, a girl who is an awesome kicker and bigger than Will. While she is allowed on the team, the other players take time to warm up to her. Obstacle after obstacle in thrown in the team's way, but they dig deep to make their town proud.
Strengths: Wow. I knew that Lupica was a great sports writer, but this... this should be the Newbery next year. The characters are all realistic and well-developed, with many surprising characteristics. Hannah was AWESOME, and her relationship with Will was exactly the sort of one I would want to write. Real equals, despite their differences. The plot, while slightly predictable, has enough twists and turns to keep me madly flipping the pages. The best part of this is the overwhelming sense of sadness that as to be overcome, and the inclusion of the town of Forbes as a character. I cried. Really. And I have to post this quote at my desk (page 22): "The ball's not round," he said. "It'll take some funny bounces on you. You still gotta pick it up and keep running."
Weaknesses: I didn't understand why the town was playing for the football team, so it seemed slightly unrealistic. And, not to spoil the book for anyone, but I didn't think for one minute that Will's team would not win the championship.
Okay, admittedly this hit me at a time where an underdog story went down really well. But still, every middle school library HAS to buy at least one copy of this one.