As it turns out, soccer school isn’t necessarily about learning to dribble, take a penalty kick, or execute a header. Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton put a new spin on the concept in Soccer School, Season 1: Where Soccer Rules the World, a September release from Walker Books US, featuring illustrations by Spike Gerrell. Welcoming readers to Soccer School, the authors introduce themselves as “your teachers,” quickly adding, “But you can call us coaches—because this is not a normal school.” Journalists in the U.K. (where Walker first published the series as Football School), Bellos and Lyttleton lightheartedly teach readers about the game, history, and world of professional soccer using a framework of academic subjects, including math, geography, biology, psychology, and physics. Sales of the three Soccer School books already published in the U.K. have reached into the six figures.
Soccer is integral to the lives of both authors, who became friends after meeting, quite fittingly, at a “football” conference over a decade ago. “I grew up playing soccer and watching it with my family, and it forms part of the fabric of the relationships within my own family,” Lyttleton explained. “I now write and talk about soccer every day as part of my job, which is lucky because I love the game! I used to go to around 40 games every season, but now that I have a young family, I’d rather play soccer with them and watch them play.”
Bellos, who has also been devoted to the sport since childhood, noted, “It was only when I lived in Brazil for a time that I began to appreciate how deeply soccer permeates culture. In 2002 I wrote a book, Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way, about how soccer explains modern Brazil, which was a turning point in my career. In many ways you can see traces of that book in the Soccer School series.”
The notion of collaborating on a book percolated during frequent chats over lunch, Bellos recalled. “We discussed how many children stop reading between the ages of seven and 13, and we thought that one way to get kids reading would be to provide them with a book about a subject they felt passionate about, that would also spark their curiosity about the world.”
The authors believe there are many angles to soccer that encourage kids’ interest—and even passion—in playing and watching the game. “Soccer is a tool for pure enjoyment and a chance to get some exercise with good friends,” Lyttleton said. “But it is also a wonderful way to emotionally connect with people, and can bring people together on a small scale, like when players in a local league support a friend whose parent might be sick, or on a big scale, like when the Ivory Coast ended its civil war after the national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time. We should also remember that soccer players themselves have a unique connection with their communities, and often give their time and support to people who are less fortunate than they.”
The series’ school structure was built on the authors’ belief that any topic can be explained through soccer. “I challenge you to come up with a school subject that can’t!” asserted Bellos, noting that the game “has clear links to science, humanities, and the arts. An important message of the books is how everything in life is interconnected, to help children to see the world and their studies in a much more holistic way.”
Putting Teamwork into Play
Since the content of Soccer School encompasses many disciplines, the authors did extensive research. “I love the research process,” Lyttleton said. “Our approach is very rigorous, since if you want to make something accessible for children, you need to know the subject really well and then distill the facts in a way that’s memorable. I have written about soccer for over 20 years, and there are still so many things out there that I still need to learn!”
Bellos shared his collaborator’s enthusiasm for information-gathering, noting, “There is no challenge I like better than discovering a new area and then communicating the ideas in a simple way. I think both Ben and I would agree that there is a fact on every page of the book that we did not know before we started researching. We read a lot around each subject and interviewed many people—from players to professors—to make sure the material was accurate and insightful.”
After they divided up research responsibilities, each author drafted chapters to share with the other, kicking off what Bellos called a process of “extensive back-and-forth. By the end, on almost every page we clearly saw both of our hands at work. I think our different backgrounds—Ben’s in sports journalism, mine in news and science—complement each other nicely.” As a bonus, Lyttleton added, “We both make each other laugh with our terrible jokes!”
Executive editorial director Susan Van Metre, who acquired the series for U.S. publication, had kinder words for the books’ humor, which is fueled by wordplay, tongue-in-cheek asides, and playful line drawings. “Spike Gerrell is a wonderful cartoonist, and he adds a lot of visual humor to match that of the text,” she said. “The books contain some silly jokes in the illustrations and the narrative that are real groaners—in a good way!”’
More importantly, the editor (who quipped that she felt “like a whack-a-mole while Americanizing the text, endlessly changing “football” to “soccer” and “pitch” to “field”), noted that she believes Soccer School will help turn aspiring soccer stars on to reading—especially given her sports journalist husband’s experience as an emerging reader. “Whenever we talk about beloved childhood books, he always brings up sports biographies,” she said. “Those were the stepping stones for him into more sophisticated reading, which I think is true for sports-loving boys and girls today.”
To encourage ongoing attendance at Soccer School, and to keep the ball rolling, Walker will publish Soccer School, Season 2: Where Soccer Saves the World, in November, with a third installment due in spring 2019. “We want to publish the books quickly because we think they are going to be read quickly,” Van Metre said.
Lyttleton reported that he and Bellos “are proud that so many teachers and parents have told us that our books have helped their children to develop a love of reading—for us that is so rewarding and inspiring. The benefits of literacy are so far-reaching: not just improved educational results, but also self-confidence, better vocabulary, and better imaginative and analytical thinking. We cannot promise that young Americans reading Soccer School will become better players—but they might become smarter ones!”
Soccer School, Season 1: Where Soccer Rules the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton, illus. by Spike Gerrell. Walker, $15.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-5362-0435-3
Soccer School, Season 2: Where Soccer Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton, illus. by Spike Gerrell. Walker, $15.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5362-0436-0