Sunday, February 7, 2010

Football in Kidlit

Superbowl Sunday seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the children's books I enjoyed with football as a theme. Although I did not become a football fan until college, when I became a football manager of the Harvard team, I always enjoyed reading about it (in the same way I enjoyed nature so long as I could do it from a comfortable armchair inside the house).

All discussion of football in juvenile fiction must begin with Family Grandstand by Carol Ryrie Brink, which I found in my elementary school library. Set in a midwestern college town, the story delightfully depicts the Ridgeway family's absorption with the fortunes of the team and its star quarterback, Tommy Tokarynski. One of my favorite parts was how George, the only son, tries to make money parking cars in the family driveway during football games as they live just a few blocks from campus. I often thought that my family's involvement with college hockey was a lot like the Ridgeways' fun with football in this book. Also in my school library were many books by Carolyn Haywood,which I read repeatedly until I discovered the other Betsy. I remember in Betsy and the Boys Betsy is told she can't play football with her friends. Betsy fights back, saying girls can do anything but it takes help from the kindly policeman Mr. Kilpatrick - who points out that the person who comes up with a football will be welcomed to the game, and finds a football for Betsy in his attic - which she brings triumphantly to the game. On the new cover, the tagline reads "The best boy on the team . . . is a girl!"

Two authors prominently displayed at the school library were Walter Brooks's books about Freddy the Pig, including Freddy Plays Football (in which Freddy joins a high school football team), and the prolific Matt Christopher who has written a book about every sport imaginable with at least 80 under his belt. The one I remember is Touchdown for Tommy which was about an orphan, another favorite theme. This may have been Christopher's first book.

While I suffered deeply with Tippy Parrish when her boyfriend dies in the Korean War, it was hard to understand why she thought her patient friend Peter Jordon was so dull (portrayed that way by Janet Lambert, I guess). After all, he was a big football star at West Point and could doubtless have dated dozens of girls less tearful than Tippy! For those who never read Janet Lambert, her Parrish and Jordon books, which follow two military families from World War II to (improbably) the 70s, are back in print from Image Cascade. She made West Point sound like such a magical place as her heroines dashed up the Hudson from New York City for football games and dances that I yearned to see it for myself. It was a big thrill in college when our football team traveled to West Point: the team practiced in famous Michie Stadium and we ate in the cadets' mess hall (I saw no hazing, unlike all my favorite stories).

As well as reading all the Janet Lamberts I could find (although it was not until I was an adult that I was able to hunt down and own all 53 of her books), I read the old boys' series books about young men attending West Point and Annapolis. It is not clear to me who the Dick Prescott and Dave Darrin books by H. Irving Hancock ( 1866?-1922) that I found in the attic belonged to. I think they came from my father's childhood home but they were published long before he was born and I doubt he read them. Perhaps they belonged to my great-aunt Lillian's brother Lawrence. In any case, both Dick and his high school friend Dave were gridiron heroes. I also read the slightly more recently published series about Clint Lane, also a West Point cadet and football player, but Clint has such trouble with math that he is forced to quit the team to concentrate on his studies, much to his chagrin. This series was written by Colonel Red Reeder who played football at West Point himself (class of '26) and after WWII became the athletic director at his alma mater.

Ralph Maddox is the football star in Betsy and Joe whose arrival may bring glory to the Deep Valley High school team if he can get over his disinclination to be tackled. Betsy knows little about football but enjoys going to games with the girls as a crowd because all the boys they know except Joe are on the team. I didn't know until many years later that Maud Hart Lovelace knew little about football herself and let her husband write all the sports bits.

In contrast to the romanticized descriptions of football from my childhood is Carl Deuker's Gym Candy, a YA title published in 2007 about a high school freshman who wants to get playing time on the football team so turns to steroids for a competitive edge.

Most recently, I became a huge fan of DJ Schwenk, the heroine of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's trilogy that begins with Dairy Queen. DJ is a quiet teen from a family that barely talks at all. However, the whole family loves football: the cows on their farm are named after famous pros, DJ's older brothers earned football scholarships to Big Ten colleges, and Mr. Schwenk is credited with training his sons so is asked to help the quarterback from the rival high school get ready for preseason. DJ is a talented athlete who had to quit basketball her sophomore year to help on the farm. She realizes that once she has prepared Brian Nelson to be a starting quarterback she has also got herself into prime quarterback condition, and decides she can play football too, even if she is a girl. What she doesn't realize is that this rivalry will destroy a relationship that was just developing between her and Brian.

I'm sure I am forgetting some I've liked - please let me know if you think of others!


Kelly Tucker said...

How about the Crimson Sweater and some of the Stephen Meader books? I know no one reads them anymore, but.....
Kelly T.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever read John Tunis' books? They were reprinted by Odyssey Classic like Edward Eager.

Charlotte said...

I think that my first fictional football game was one starring Ned Nickerson (as in Nancy Drew's boyfriend). And I think that for once in her life Nancy stayed in her seat, and didn't leap onto the field herself to score the winning touchdown...