Books about the sports kids love written by sports luminaries they admire is a win-win combination. Publishers, of course, clued into sports-themed books’ viability in the children’s market years ago. Biographies of athletic champions have long been found in abundance in stores and libraries, and sports fiction—a genre popularized by Matt Christopher—has been a reliable staple of children’s sections. Adding to the sporty mix is a growing roster of picture books and novels by athletes themselves.
Also scoring hits in the kids’ sports arena are journalists on the sports beat, who have the advantage of possessing both a broad perspective on the business and an insider’s behind-the-scenes view. One such author is sports writer, commentator, and broadcaster John Feinstein, whose middle-grade Sports Beat series and upcoming Triple Threat series are published by Knopf. “As a sportswriter, what John brings to his books is knowledge of the inner workings of what goes on in the locker room, on the pitcher’s mound, and in the huddle—information kids want to have access to,” says Nancy Siscoe, senior executive editor of Knopf Books for Young Readers, who edits Feinstein’s children’s books for the house.
Mike Lupica, syndicated sports columnist, TV broadcaster, and author of many sports-centered middle-grade novels (including Travel Team, Heat, and the Comeback Kids and Game Changers series), emphasized the key role this genre plays in roping in readers—especially boys—who would rather be playing a sport than reading about it. “I can’t begin to count the number of times parents have told me that my sports-themed books finally got their sons to read,” says Lupica. “Boys will read if you give them something they want to read about, and if the author is able to relate to readers and respect their intelligence. Connecting with kids through my books has been one of the great adventures of my life.”
Here’s a sampling of recent and upcoming sports books by 11 authors who have proven their prowess on the field or court—and by two who report on their feats.
Amar’e Stoudemire, captain of the New York Knicks and a six-time NBA All-Star, recently added a fifth volume to his series, STAT: Standing Tall and Talented, with Most Valuable (Scholastic Paperbacks, Jan.). Inspired by the author’s childhood basketball adventures, this series has more than 300,000 copies in print. In the latest installment, young Amar’e and his friends step up to plan the annual streetball tournament when its original organizer—Amar’e’s idol—is injured during a game.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar launched Streetball Crew, a series spotlighting his sport, with Sasquatch in the Paint (Disney-Hyperion, Sept. 2013). Loosely based on challenges this Hall of Famer faced growing up, the series is coauthored by Raymond Obstfeld. In the second volume, Stealing the Game (Disney-Hyperion, Feb. 2015), a boy finds himself in a tough spot when his older brother recruits him and his middle-school teammates for a pickup game that has shady undertones.
Basketball is also at the center of Feinstein’s Foul Trouble (Knopf, Nov. 2013), a stand-alone YA novel that lifts the veil on the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting. An Ember paperback edition is due in August. Feinstein moves to the gridiron in The Walk On (Knopf, Sept.), the debut title of the Triple Threat series, focusing on a three-sport athlete who’s new to town. In the first installment, he’s a star quarterback who discovers that his position is already filled by the coach’s son. Subsequent books will follow the boy through the basketball and baseball seasons.
Bringing the Game to the Kids
Former NFL defensive end Tim Green, author of Baseball Great and its two companions, Rivals and Best of the Best, again has his characters running the bases in New Kid (HarperCollins, Mar.), a middle-grade novel about a troubled new kid in school who finds his bearings after a coach offers him a chance to shine on the baseball team. A quarterback is determined to reverse his new team’s losing strike in Perfect Season (HarperCollins, Oct. 2013), the sixth book in Green’s Football Genius series. The publisher, which has sold more than one million copies of the author’s children’s books, will issue a paperback edition of this novel in September.
Two other retired NFL players, twin brothers Tiki and Ronde Barber, also turn their attention to baseball in Extra Innings (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Feb.), the eighth addition to Barber Game Time Books, which has sold more than 250,000 copies. In this novel, the authors’ young alter egos take to the baseball field for the first time in hopes of making the team. The siblings venture onto the basketball court in Jump Shot (S&S/Wiseman, Nov., 2013), which is due out in paperback next November.
R.A. Dickey, now a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, in 2012 became the first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award—and to write a bestseller (Wherever I Wind Up, Blue Rider, 20112). He parlays his pitching style into a picture book in Knuckleball Ned (Dial, May), illustrated by Tim Bowers. In the story, when a baseball named Ned stands up to bullies, he discovers that he’s a knuckleball—and becomes a hero.
Another renowned pitcher-turned-author is Mariano Rivera, MLB’s all-time leader in saves and ERA and a 13-time All Star. An adaptation of his adult book of the same title, The Closer: Young Readers Edition (Little, Brown, Sept.), chronicles the relief pitcher’s life, from his childhood in Panama to his 19 years playing for the New York Yankees.
Cal Ripkin Jr., a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles for his entire career—1981–2001—stepped onto the children’s book field in 2011, when he launched Cal Ripken Jr.’s All-Stars, a series of middle-grade baseball novels written with Kevin Cowherd. In the fourth installment, Squeeze Play (Disney-Hyperion, Mar.), a player for a Babe Ruth League team is thrown too many curveballs: he’s in a monster hitting slump, his nemesis thinks she deserves his center field position, and his hot-tempered father gets into shouting matches with other parents and the umps. The series’ third book, Wild Pitch, is due out in paperback the same month.
Columnist and broadcaster Lupica adds to his wide-ranging sports canon with the third addition to Game Changers, Heavy Hitters (Scholastic, Feb.). This volume of the series, which follows the athletic and personal trials and triumphs of middle-school friends, centers on two teammates in an All-Star Baseball league. Lupica switches fields in Fantasy League (Philomel, Sept.), which introduces a 12-year-old who is a benchwarmer for his football team, but a first-stringer when it comes to picking winners for a fantasy football league. Lupica knows his game: there are more than 4.7 million copies of his Penguin books in print in the U.S. alone.
From the Courts and the Pitch
Though they’re played with a ball, two other sports without that word in their monikers also have athlete authors represented on publishers’ frontlists. Tennis great Monica Seles, who in 1990 became the youngest-ever winner of the French Open at 16 and went on to win nine more Grand Slam singles titles, recently published Love Match (Bloomsbury, Feb.), the second volume in The Academy series. The book, which had a 50,000-copy first printing, continues the saga (begun with 2013’s Game On) of a tennis star and her classmates at an elite sports academy.
Two spring additions to the sports bookshelf will score points with young soccer aficionados. Alex Morgan, a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s soccer team at the 2012 London Summer Olympics and who now plays for the Portland Thorns FC in Oregon, has added a third book, Win or Lose (Simon & Schuster, Mar.), to The Kicks series. This middle-grade series, inspired by the author’s experiences as a young player, recounts the adventures of members of a girls’ soccer team.
And kicking off this spring is Frankie’s Magic Soccer Ball, a series by British professional soccer (aka football) player Frank Lampard. In the novels, aimed at readers ages 7–10, an enchanted soccer ball enables young players to time travel to various locales, where they take to the field to compete with an eclectic array of opponents. The Scholastic Paperbacks series debuts with Frankie vs. the Pirate Pillagers (April), Frankie vs. The Rowdy Romans (May), Frankie vs. The Cowboy Crew (June), and Frankie vs. The Mummy’s Menace (July).
All of these books aim to keep young sports players and enthusiasts happily turning pages—and perhaps leave them inspired to accomplish their goals, on- and off-field.