Monday, April 10, 2023

MMGM- The Ultimate Goal (The Good Sports League)

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Greenwald, Tommy and Vamos, Lesley (illustrations).
The Ultimate Goal (The Good Sports League #1)
April 11th 2023 by Amulet Books
Copy provided by the publisher

Ben Cutler LOVES soccer. He's on a local Pizza League team, the Anchovies, with his friend Jay-Jay, and after playing hard on the field, they celebrate their successes with goofy dances and lots of homemade baked goods provided by their parents. The referees are high school students, and the parents and siblings get involved, as does Ben's dog, Lola, on occasion. When the coach of the local travel team, West Harbor Soccer Academy, approaches Ben to play for him, Ben is pleased that his talents are noticed, and his parents let him sign up. This means leaving Jay-Jay behind and playing with classmates Lucas, Matty, and Andre. Standards are a little higher; the coach derides Ben's worn out cleats, and he has to get new ones. There are no celebratory dances, and the snacks are carrot sticks and more carrot sticks. Things are intense on the field, and Coach Cleary comes down hard on any breaking of the rules. Ben starts to miss the free wheeling fun of the Anchovies, and the lack of joy in the sport shows in how the team plays against Jogo Bonito, a team the coach has been holding up as a paragon of skill all season. Will Ben be able to continue his soccer career when it has become more work than play?

Greenwald deftly merges the humor and heart of his Charlie Joe Jackson series with the sports of his Rivals and Game Changers for an excellent middle grade book that strikes at the heart of a critical issue with youth sports: how serious does a "game" need to be. I loved seeing Ben and Jay-Jay's joy when they had a good play, and the casual chaos of a child centered approach to sports was great to see. Coach Cleary was intense, and clearly had a different approach, but he wasn't demonized. Instead, his players were able to help him understand why they really wanted to play the game, and why having fun was important to their success. After my years coaching cross country, I know that it's a fine line to walk. Players want to do well, but too much pressure doesn't help. I never criticized my runners if they wanted to run down hills shouting "For Narnia!" even if it added a second or two off their time. 

The format of this book is the perfect amalgam of pictures and text. Charlie Joe Jackson had occasional page decorations, but this has introductory sections in graphic novel format. The narrator of these, Frederick Ulysses Nimbleshank, could have been left unnamed and made a bit older to draw in a wider range of readers, but young soccer fans are just going to be lured in to the book by seeing that pictures are involved. There are also more page decorations scattered throughout the book, which makes a huge difference for reluctant readers. The ARC had very rough drawings, but they were placed throughout the text with a little more frequency than many books, which is great. I've bemoaned the lack of sports graphic novels, but this is even better. There's enough text to give more satisfying details about the games and the character development, so this will make both tweens and the adults in their lives happy. 

There aren't a lot of sports books that detail the emotions that players have when they don't do well, but this is a huge issue in middle school. A bad day on the playing field can carry over to school and home, especially if parents or coaches are putting undue pressure. Bad days at school can also carry onto the field. I was glad to see that Ben talked to a variety of people and was able to voice his feelings to his coach. Mental health issues have come into a lot of middle grade novels in the last five years, but few of them are as constructive in their approach. 

While soccer isn't the most requested sport in literature (that would be football, with basketball close behind), I am seeing more and more readers who are heavily invested in the sport, and many of these are English Language Learners. As Ben's sister Ellie might say, The Ultimate Goal is a home run, touchdown, slam dunk of a book!

1 comment:

  1. Tommy Greenwald is a must read author for me. His humor and creating memorable characters always have me in awe of his writing talents. Glad to see another soccer title. Thanks for including this one on MMGM this week.