Monday, September 23, 2013

Sports in Novels

I'm not a sports fan, but somehow sports have found their way into almost all of my novels and stories. I even wrote a baseball story that was accepted into an anthology (that unfortunately the publisher never got off the ground). I'm not sure why I write about sports when I don't follow them, other than the Buffalo Bills, which isn't as much a fandom as a masochistic personality problem. Maybe it's because my brother was obsessed, so I've absorbed so much baseball and football and hockey information that I need an outlet for it. Also, my son is in love with baseball, so I know there are kids looking for sports in their books. But frankly I find it interesting in books for older teens, too, and adults. I think it's because sports players have definite goals and conflicts. (Other than the Bills, I don't know what they're trying to achieve because it's not winning games.)

There's also a nice regionalism about sports, a sense of place. Different countries have different definitions of football. In the US, Northerners care about hockey intensely while Southerners barely acknowledge its existence. A town where a lot of kids play lacrosse is a very different place than a town where a lot of kids play basketball. A girl who devotes hours a day to ice skating has an assumed income bracket (ice time is expensive) and we can assume she lives north of the Mason/Dixon line. Sports don't just reflect character, they reflect setting.

I've read three novels this year where a character was demonstrated to be an outsider because he or she wore a football jersey from a different town. I did it myself. My new kid wore a Red Sox cap in his new California school. That gave him the extra worry that someone would knock it off him or steal it. But he was the kind of person who wore it anyway, and I wanted a reader to know that.

Sports also make a great background for adventure plots. Your character who just fought off two assailants? It's a lot less improbable if he's been on the school football team, practicing for years. But a sports story can be a plot itself. Teams need to learn to work together, swallow jealousies, develop and overcome petty rivalries, fight prejudice, and tolerate others' shortcomings. There's a lot of meat there. Add in parental expectations and scholarships, and the stakes can be incredibly high.

If you're the type of person who fills in character sheets when building your character, why not add a line about sports? How does s/he feel about them, which ones does s/he identify with? Are you going deeper than the dumb jock/mean cheerleader/wimpy nerd stereotypes? If you're the "daydream about your characters" type of planner, imagine them at a baseball game. Are they trying to sneak beer from the concession stand or keeping track of every pitch on an iPhone app?

Lastly, I leave you with some recommendations for novels with sports subplots:

  • Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (YA): a young woman joins the school football team and falls in love with one of her teammates
  • Theft of the Star Tracker by Lisa Tiffin (MG): a rivalry develops between two boys who want to be their team's quarterback that spills over into life off the field
  • The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner (MG): Gianna's love of running helps her through tough family times, even when she clashes with her track teammates
  • Thaw by Monica Roe (YA): an injured teen ski champion stuck in physical therapy has to remake his self-image for a life off the slopes
  • Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena (YA): a half-white, half-Mexican boy trying to find his place within his Mexican family finds friendship and acceptance through baseball games
  • Eliza Bing is Not a Big, Fat Quitter by Carmella Van Vleet (MG): Eliza finds relief from the pressure of ADHD and her family's low expectations by sticking with tae kwon do
  • Gilded by Christina Farley (YA): a young woman uses her championship archery skills to face a Korean mythological figure who has cursed her family

Car and Christy's novels aren't released yet, but you know you want them! Trust me, they're awesome. If you have any other recommendations, please let us know in the comments. Thanks!

-- Kate


  1. Those are some great thoughts on the assumptions people draw when they find out what sport you do. I've made some of them myself! Like if I hear you do English horeseback riding, I'm probably thinking you're from the Northeast and have alot of money, lol!

  2. I did English horseback riding! My family didn't have money, but guess what area of the country I'm from? :) I was like the scholarship girl after my parents paid full price for one session. It was great for my self-esteem.

  3. I'm not a big sports reader and neither are my kids yet - but I do think there is a high demand for them in the young adult / middle grades. Our blog readers are continuously asking which books we recommend for their sons - will check these out.

  4. Gary D. Schmidt (one of my favorite authors) uses sports in both The Wednesday Wars and in Okay for Now - both great books!

  5. Thanks Lovingmama! And Peggy, I've heard great things about both those books. I'm surprised I haven't read them yet.

  6. Thanks Kate!!!! This is a fascinating post.


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