Reading Round-Up on Kids and Competitive Activities (mix of YA and MG fiction books)

Because of my research on kids and competition (especially beauty pageants and dance, which often bleeds into cheer, and athletics) and my own love of reading, I often read youth literature on these topics-- which I've written about before.  Most of the time this has meant Young Adult (YA) books, but more recently I've noticed more Middle Grade (MG) books on these topics as well.  What's the difference between YA and MG? Here's the best thing I've read about the differences between the two (and, according to a Tweet today by NYT publishing reporter Leslie Kaufman, the NYT will now break out YA and MG books on its children's bestseller list).  I would also add, as someone who has read both of Suzanne Collins' series, that The Hunger Games trilogy is YA (and adult-friendly) whereas her Gregor the Overlander five-book series is clearly MG. In any case, here are my quick takes on these five recent books, some of which may appeal to some special young person in your life for the holidays!

1) Dare Me- The darkest of this group of books, Megan Abbott's latest is definitely YA, with sex, drinking, and death taking center stage in her atmospheric and psychological novel on the young woman's psyche.  Outside competitions take second-place to the internal competition on this high school cheerleading squad.  Even if you don't know anything about cheerleading you can appreciate this book (in fact, some hardcore all-star cheerleaders may be distracted by the way competition operates for this high school squad).  Teen girls will love this, even if it makes mom uncomfortable.

2) Fifteen Love- The latest in the Pretty Tough series, which I've written about before, this installment focuses on twin sisters starting ninth grade who play competitive tennis.  It is definitely the best in the series thus far.  The characters are believable and it is very accurately situated in today's tough scholastic high school environment; for example, one of the main characters asks on page 3, "When did high school become a career?"  And this exchange captures the spirit of the book very well:

"Right. Snowboarding. You know, it's not like you can get a scholarship or win any money messing around with stuff that doesn't matter."

"Uh, not that I care about winning money or medals, but actually, yes, I can. Ever hear of the X Games? Or the Super Jam? How about the Olympics? They're adding more action sports events every year!" I roll my eyes. "But it's not about the fame and glory for me-- it's about having fun." [page 10]

3) Pinned- Sharon Flake's latest also focuses on two ninth graders-- Autumn and Adonis.  The two are very different, but are drawn together.  Autumn is a top wrestler on her high school's team here she is the only female (female wrestlers are quite the topic on this blog and in general these days) while Adonis is the team's manager. He doesn't wrestle because he doesn't have lower legs.  The book will appeal to those who like to read, like Adonis, and those who may struggle, like Autumn.  Autumn's chapters are written as she speaks; I'm not a literacy expert but I did wonder if that might make it more difficult to read for those who find reading challenging already? In any cause, it's beautifully voiced and presents universal themes in a different way.  My favorite passage from the book is at the very beginning, when Autumn explains what she likes about wrestling: "You work hard and discipline yourself, and you can be somebody in this sport. And it don't matter if you big or small. Fat or skinny. Rocking killer grades or not."

4) Prettiest Doll- Set in Missouri this middle grade (in my opinion) novel is quite an accurate portrayal of life in child beauty pageants away from the all high-glitz circuit presented in shows like Toddlers & Tiaras. With elements of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler  (one of my all time favorite stories), you don't have to be interested in pageants to be interested in this book.  I like that the pageants aren't sensationalized, presenting both the good and the bad, and that other important issues in children's lives are discussed.  The book, which is a quick and enjoyable read, also addresses a variety of complicated parental relationships well and has a lasting and realistic take-away message.

5) Someday Dancer- Sarah Rubin's debut novel will appeal most to young dancers who don't quite fit the traditional ballet mode.  The most interesting feature here is that the book is set in the late 1950s, so it offers a very different perspective on adolescence, art, and dance.  The main character discovers modern dance, just after modern dance is "invented."  Several dance greats make appearances, which means that those interested in the arts will learn something about its history.  That such young girls traveled by themselves, overnight by bus, to pursue their dreams may shock some readers and enchant others.  But such sacrifices are also made by young dancers today (which you can see more of if you watch the STUPENDOUS ballet documentary First Position).

I'm looking forward to blogging about some other YA novels soon-- and sharing some new reading news for 2103 soon!

A Post-Olympics Reading List (for enthusiastic fans who can't wait for Sochi 2014)

If you're anything like me, you and your family are facing a post-Olympics letdown. I have the perfect solution. No, not starting to play any Olympic sports. As I wrote last week, I'm more of a reader than a athlete.  I recommend you and your kids crack open the bindings of some of these recent books about competitive sports.

1) Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton- This meditative, artistic work is the perfect book for the Internet/blog age.  Shapton writes in snippets recalling her time as a national-caliber swimmer and how it shaped her.  It is a type of memoir that reads a lot like a blog with moments vividly captured in words, and sometimes with the aid of paintings or photographs.  I found Shapton's experience as a Canadian youth who was very, very good, but not great enough to make the Olympics (she went to the Olympic Trials several times), powerful.  All of us likely feel this way about some aspect of our lives and Shapton's elegant turns of phrase and evocative sense of mood is quite appealing.  Recommend for adults interested in memoir and good writing and for teens thinking of swimming more seriously, as this book shows that there is life after swimming for those who aren't Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky.

2) Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics by John Feinstein- This may be surprising but this was the first YA "thriller" since the Hunger Games to actually keep my interest piqued until the end (especially since I read a lot of adult thrillers). Now, to be clear, this is no Harry Potter or Catching Fire, but this is an enjoyable book, part of the Last Shot series by sports journalist Feinstein.  I haven't read any of the previous works in the series and there were clearly some characters whose significance was lost on me, but I enjoyed Feinstein's sense of pace and that the mystery didn't involve death or serious bodily harm (especially important for younger readers). The excellence of the main characters is at times unbelievable (they are national known high school-age sports writers, and the extremely beautiful one happens to make the Olympics in the butterfly-- think an alpha-ier Missy Franklin), but Feinstein's insider knowledge about swimming and journalism makes up for the less believable aspects of the story.  While it obviously couldn't be 100% up-to-date, it does get many things right.  While it ends a bit abruptly the story will appeal to male and female middle grade readers whether or not they are swimmers and athletes themselves.

3) Game Changers by Mike Lupica- Another middle grade series written by a sports journalist, Game Changers tackles a non-Olympic sport-- football.  Lupica covers aspects of youth travel sports that many young readers will be familiar with, especially boys.  I was less interested in the details of the football games played and more interested in the story, but I'm guessing that if I were a sixth grade boy I'd appreciate the accurate game descriptions.  Lupica has written about competitive youth sports before, so if your little one likes this know there are more books where this came from.

4) Making Waves: A PrettyTOUGH Novel by Nicole Leigh Shepherd- While the Lupica books are directed more at male readers, the Pretty Tough series is directed at females.  As their website explains they explore girls who are both fierce and feminine.  I've read the first four books in the series, each of which focuses on a different sport (soccer, football, basketball, and softball) and the latest is from a new author in the series who focuses on the summer season of lifeguarding, complete with a scholarship competition at the end of the season.  Characters are repeated throughout the series, so faithful readers will appreciate updates on their favorites, so if you haven't read the others you might have a bit of difficulty keeping all the characters straight.  Middle grade girl readers will really love learning about the private lives of student athletes-- both at home with family, and with friends and romantic interests.  Girls will enjoy the realistic situations that acknowledge how hard growing up in today's electronic and pressure-filled world can be, but parents can rest assured that the books tend to have a happy resolution when it comes to both athletics and romance.

I hope you and your young reader find that these books and authors tide over your Olympic enthusiasm until at least February 7, 2014 when the XXII Winter Games begin in Sochi!