Lupica, Mike. Game Changers.
8 May 2012, Scholastic. Also reviewed at Young Adults Book Central.
Ben McBain is a good, driven middle school football player, who is probably better than the quarterback on his Pop Warner team. However, Ben is also on the small side, and the quarterback on his team is also the coach's son. Shawn O'Brien is hard on himself when he does poorly, and Ben tries to make friends with him in order to help him, and therefore the team. This works for a while. Ben visits Shawn's house, where Coach O'Brien ( a former pro football player) has installed a turf field in the backyard, complete with electronic ball catchers, and starts to realize that football is not fun to Shawn. The two work together, even though Ben's teammates think he's not helping his own goal of becoming quarterback by improving Shawn's skills. Ben's parents and his friend Lily are supportive, and this makes it easier when the team loses game after game. Eventually, the team, and Shawn's mood, starts to improve, but the boys realize that in order to win games, they are going to have to convince their Coach to make different choices on the field and to really see where the team's talents lie. While this book has very strong themes of personal identity and conflicts with parents, the play-by-play sports action keeps this book moving along.
Strengths: Afraid gushing will be involved here. This book made me cry. I really did not understand the emotional connection that boys have to football, nor how deeply they feel winning and losing, and how football is a huge connection to their fathers. While this book could have veered into the preachy and overdone, Lupica has a fine touch with the balance of emotion. Shawn's father is kind of an idiot, but never too much of one, and when he realizes his mistakes, it isn't some great revelation. Most of all, I liked this quote (page 159) "He heard a knock on the window then, saw his dad, saw Jeff McBain make a goofy face once he knew he's caught his son's eye. In that moment, Ben thought how it was never hard being Jeff McBain's son, that things never seemed complicated between them, not for one day of Ben's life. " (Go ahead, grab the tissues.)
From the Mixed-up Files had a post on Dads in Middle Grade Books, and I think Jeff McBain is my new favorite dad.
Weaknesses: There has also been a lot of talk about the BEA panel on Writing Strong Female Characters in Middle Grade Books (this report from Rebecca Behrens), so while I liked Lily, I wasn't sure how I felt about the repeated insistence that she was cool for a girl. Perhaps less discussion of it and more action? At the same time, it IS difficult for a middle school boy to be friends with a girl, so you can't completely ignore the fact. I'm curious to see what Lily's role will be in this series!