This one’s moving up my roster

 QB 1, by Mike Lupica (2013)

Opening line: “If you were a high school quarterback, a Texas high school quarterback, this was the moment you imagined for yourself from the first time somebody said you had some arm on you.”

I don’t know why I keep being surprised by the fact that I love middle grade sports fiction. I never pick one up unless it’s on a state awards lists, and yet, I am always happy I do.

Jake Cullen starts the football season as third-string quarterback, a position he is very familiar with. His whole life he’s been playing third-string behind his older brother Wyatt and, before him, his father Troy, the man the football stadium at Granger High is named after. The Cullen name means quarterback gold. And here Jake is, freshman at Granger after brother Wyatt has finished his four perfect years as QB 1 and recruited as starter to the Texas Longhorns. Jake is comfortable with his reality, ready to wait his turn, to do the work and put in the effort. But in the first game of the season, the first-string quarterback tears his ACL. And suddenly QB 1 is wide open.

It’s a sort of classic underdog story. But in this one, it’s not so much about Jake overcoming the odds. The odds are stacked graciously in his favor. He’s been living and breathing football since infancy, he’s got a head for tracking plays and seeing outcomes, and he’s even taller than his brother, even at 14. Instead, it’s about Jake finding his one place, his place outside the Great Cullen Shadow.

Plus, it’s got great football action that is not dumbed down for us novices out there. (I felt like I could totally talk football now after reading this.) The author reminds the reader (or perhaps explains to the non-sports-aficionado reader) why we keep coming back for more:

“This was why you played. This kind of night, this kind of opponent, stakes like these. Didn’t matter if you grew up in Granger or Redding, Laredo or Huntsville or Abilene. This was the kind of game you grew up seeing somebody else play at the same time you were dreaming about playing it yourself… This was the town in the stands, families, friends, and strangers alike, every one of them feeling like they were a part of something, that they were going to somehow help you win tonight.” (p. 199)

That’s the thing about sports stories. They make fans out of non-fans, they bring the readers, the characters, the author, that moment all together, cheering for the same thing. They make us all a part of something. And that’s what reading stories is all about, isn’t it?

2 stars

Leaving one world for another

Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston (2009)

A couple years ago, I took a creative non-fiction writing class “for fun” to round out my last semester of college. It ended up being one of the most consuming classes of my college career. It’s a difficult thing to write interesting, purposeful, and honest prose featuring your life, and have it be something you’d actually be okay with someone else reading. Ghostbread is the kind of thing I aspired to write. It is just lovely.

Sonja Livingston grew up as one of seven children in a single parent household. While providing for seven kids is difficult for any family, Sonja’s mother struggled particularly, and the children grew up in extreme poverty, moving from apartment to house to reservation to motel to friend’s house to another friend’s house to home. It was far from a stable environment. And yet, the love and sibling bonds held the family together throughout the turbulence and uncertainty.

The story arc isn’t what captured my heart on this one, though. Instead, I was fascinated by Livingston’s prose. Let me tell you, each sentence packs a punch. She structures the narrative into compact 1-2 page stories, and each is led by a powerful first sentence that sets the tone for that piece. “When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through,” she writes as she begins discussing the meals while on the reservation. Or of elementary school, “At school, I learned to read and write and use spit in creative ways.” And later, revealing a thought common to many of us in adolescence, “No one told me the thing I most needed to know.” Each beginning line carries you to the next line and you can’t help but read through the rest of the story. To put it simply, it’s captivating.

The well-deserved winner of the Award for Creative Nonfiction (from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), Livingston’s book is highly recommended for any fans of this genre or any readers wanting to get an inside view of what it’s like to grow up hungry.

2 stars