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In honor of the Winter Olympics (which were truly fabulous) and female athletes everywhere, I've been thinking a lot about teen girls in sports. This of course has led me to thoughts of sporty female protags in books and the enormous lack thereof. So I asked the panel to give a thought to literary girls and sports. This ended up being a tough one for many as they responded that they were not athletes and so had never thought about this. I hope that after seeing the books that those who did respond came up with that they will rethink their initial reticence. I think the point is that you don't need to be an athlete to love a book about athletic girls - just as I didn't need to be a downhill skier to love Julia Mancuso. Sports are just another way to be excited about being a girl and honestly the more ways we can encourage that, the better.

So the questions: What books can you think of about famous female athletes in history? Do we honor them on the same level as male athletes? And what about game playing girls in MG & YA novels? Can you think of some great ones and do familiar teen girl tropes (like mean girls and romance) play into those novels? In other words, is a book about boys playing ball crafted the same as one about girls playing ball? Is the sport enough when selling a book about girl athletes?

Jenny Davidson: "I don't know that I'm widely read enough in this field to give a very good answer, but I've approached the question of girls' books about sport with new interest in the past couple years as I have become increasingly obsessed with triathlon. I don't think there's a clear equivalent of, say Chris Crutcher's books if we are thinking about very popular young-adult books and wanting ones that feature female rather than male athletes. I suspect that there aren't a ton of great sport biographies for teenage readers seeking books about athletes of either (any!) sex, since a would-be biographer would almost certainly be wiser to write the book for an adult market and hope that it found its way into the hands of suitable teenagers. (Michael Silver's biography of Natalie Coughlin, for instance, would be highly interesting and enjoyable to a teenager with an interest in swimming or collegiate sport more generally.)

A favorite book of mine of recent years that would fit the criteria you describe, Colleen, is Catherine Gilbert Murdock's novels DAIRY QUEEN and THE OFF SEASON. An older book, about a swimmer, is Tessa Duder's IN LANE THREE, ALEX ARCHER. We think of Noel Streatfeild's series (which I grew up rereading obsessively) as being mostly about children who aspire to work professionally as dancers or actors, but she also wrote several ones about girls pursuing sports such as WHITE BOOTS and TENNIS SHOES. And then, of course, there are the copious books about girls who are serious about horse-riding...

In short, I guess if I have an 'answer' to this question, it's that there is lots of good stuff out there, but perhaps it's not collected under a single rubric - as I often want to say, it's children's librarians who can do the best work here, reading widely and making recommendations to individual readers that will be most suitable."

Loree Griffin Burns: "My thinking around this question surprised me. It's a great topic, and being both a girl and an athlete, I thought I would really sink my teeth into it. And then I sat down and tried to think of books that I adore in this arena … and came up with exactly two: WILMA UNLIMITED, a picture book biography of Wilma Rudolph by Kathleen Krull and David Diaz, and THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z., a middle-grade novel by Kate Messner. I did some exploring and while I found this nice-looking list of sports book from the Women's Sports Foundation, I was surprised at how few of the books on it I had read.

What's up with that? I'm not sure. I think personal reading taste is a big part of it, though. Even though I'm a girl and even though I'm an athlete, these are apparently not what I crave in the books I read. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

For the purposes of your questions, though, Kate's book is definitely worth discussing. (Full disclosure: Kate is a good friend of mine.) It's a contemporary novel about a middle schooler with all the pressures you would expect: homework (the dreaded Leaf Project), friends (her best one is a boy, and that is getting harder and harder), family (hers has its share of sadness, including a grandmother struggling with signs of dementia), and sports (Gianna is a cross country runner, and the book takes place just before sectionals). There are mean girls (well, one in particular) and romance (remember that best friend?). GIANNA Z. is definitely not just a "playing ball" book. It's a book about being a thirteen-year-old girl.

One last thought: horse books. They were a staple of my childhood. Walter Farley's Black Stallion books were the highlight, but really anything with a horse and a kid (boy or girl) found its way into my book bag. I'm not sure these books are considered "sports books", but they definitely filled that niche for me when I was a young athlete."

Lorie Ann Grover: "I haven't had female sports books cross my desk like male sports books have. There is no Chris Crutcher for girls, right? The closest is maybe Catherine Gilbert Murdock with her Dairy Queen, Front and Center, and Off Season. I do think also of Justina Chen's Girl Overboard, snowboarding at its best. Justine Larbalestier's novel How to Ditch Your Fairy is another excellent example of sporty girls.

Thinking of Justine brought to mind this post at her blog where she discusses the topic with Doret, who recommended several titles. (They are all listed below in Doret's response this week - Lorie Ann and I were on the same wavelength as I thought of her right away when I came up with this topic! - CM)

Despite these examples, it's obvious we don't feature female athletes at the rate we feature male athletes. How athletic are our female YA novelists? Can they draw from their own history? Certainly our experiences aren't still limited like my mother-in-law's who found sports radically limited in her high school due to "the delicate constitution of females." Rather, is the lack of YA female sports books simply because publishers deny their marketability?

Regardless, I'm betting you will find mean girls, romance, and coming of age in the sports novels that do reach the shelves. It's not as if those elements aren't in the athletic arena. Here's to challenging YA authors to represent female athletes andpublishers to back them. I'm off to think…

Sara Ryan: If punk rock were a sport run by surly chicks on roller skates, the result would be Roller Derby. Every one of the Derby Girls is completely gorgeous in her own way: There are skinny girls, chubby girls, tall girls, short girls, girls with big butts, girls with big boobs, girls with no boobs, girls with tattoos, girls without -- and the crowd adores them all.

"I'm quoting from Whip It, the novel by Shauna Cross formerly known as Derby Girls that inspired the Drew Barrymore-directed film. I was delighted by this book, with its hilarious narrator, vivid small-town Texas setting, solid and realistically portrayed friendships, parents who seem one-dimensional at first but take on depth as the narrative progresses, and even a romance that seems too good to be -- but no, I won't reveal any spoilers. And oh, yeah, there's roller derby! Derby is clearly a sport, and an intense sport at that, but it's not a traditional sport. So it's especially compelling for Whip It's tradition-averse protagonist, Bliss Calendar.

Because there's so much else going on besides derby, you could argue that Whip It isn't a sports book per se. But it contains elements common to many sports-focused narratives -- the discovery and development of the protagonist's talent; the experience of being part of a team; rivalry; injury; and perhaps most importantly, the way the protagonist's new sports-infused sense of self affects the rest of their life.

I'll confess that deadline pressure prevented me from exploring other titles, which is why I'm pleased that Karen Healey, author of Guardian of the Dead, recently wrote a post at Inside A Dog all about girls in sporty books! So I'd also like to draw your attention to Karen's recommendations: "I Once Read Through An International Rugby Match."

(Roller derby fans should keep an eye out for Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby by Alex Cohen and Jennifer Barbee, due out from Soft Skull Press in June. - CM)

Doret Canton: " I recently read a children's biography called Amelia to Zora: Twenty Six Women Who Changed the World. B was for Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Born in 1914, she excelled at every sport she played - including softball, basketball, track and field and golf. She was so dominant that during the 1932 Olympics she was only allowed to participate in three events. She would've gone home with 3 gold medals if she hadn't been disqualified for her high jump technique, which is now standard practice.

Where are the books on Babe?. And what about Jackie Joyner Kersey who has 11 Olympic medals (8 gold) A male athlete with half of their talent would never be ignored like this. The only female Olympic athlete that I know there are several children's biographies on is Wilma Rudolph. In 2004 Michelle Green wrote a great bio. on Mamie "Peanut" Johnson called A Strong Right Arm. Johnson was one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues and the only pitcher. Satchel Paige thought Johnson had good stuff and taught her to throw a curveball.

Last year after, I learned it was the 37th anniversary of Title IX, so I decided to go on a female athlete protagonist kick. In my search I found some wonderful titles. I really enjoyed Kathy Mackel's YA novel Boost. The main character Savvy, reminded me of Murdock's - D.J. Schwenk from the very popular Dairy Queen trilogy. Both characters had the same workout regime - farm fitness. D.J. loves to play football and basketball -many readers embraced her. Nina Revoyr's YA novel The Necessary Hunger was published in 1997 and was ahead of its time. Besides having spot on good basketball, its diverse, and the two main characters are lesbians and it's not a coming out story.

I really enjoyed Bobbie Pyron's YA debut The Ring. Like Revoyr, Pyron has a diverse cast. Mardie takes up boxing to get her life back on track. And then, if Meg Cabot wrote an MG sports novel it would read something like Fitzgerald's Soccer Chick Rules.

The most frustrating thing about all this is having to search out sports titles with girls. The sales on these books are low because they can't be easily found. People can't read what they don't know about. Its a vicious cycle that makes me want to scream.

I don't read mean girl novels so I can't speak too much on that. Though I have read YA novels that have both romance and sports. In Elizabeth Chandler's novel Love at First Click, Hayley dreams of becoming a sports photographer and loves the game of football. She also falls for one of the football players. In Debbie Rigaud's Perfect Shot, London is the star on her volleyball team. She enters a modeling competition to catch the eye of her crush. In Rachel Hawthorne's The Boyfriend League, Dani and her best friend love baseball and they want baseball player boyfriends for the summer. I like to think of books like these as Sports and Boys (S&B) chick lit. I am trying to get S&B chick lit into the YA vernacular so please use as often as you can!

We are well past era, when Billie Jean King had to play Bobby Riggs to get a little respect for female athletes. There are female announcers in the NBA and NCAA football. The WNBA has been around since 1996. The US women's soccer team is constantly one of the best in the World. In 2009 Serena Williams was ranked #67 (right above Derek Jeter) in the Forbes Celebrity 100 poll. The other day while flipping through Jet magazine I learned that Wendy Lewis is Senior VP of Diversity and Strategic Alliances for MLB In 2009 12 yr old Mackenzie Brown, a little league pitcher threw a perfect game. Some girls don't play, they simply love the games. So yes the game alone is more than enough to sell a book about a female athlete.

The only thing that's the same in boy and girls sports novels is the action on the field, ice, court, etc. Sports novels with girls have more obvious emotions. Three sports novels with female protagonists I think boys will enjoy are Smith's Comeback Season, Linda Sue Park's Keeping Score and Joseph Wallace's soon to be released Diamond Ruby, It's fiction and a YA crossover. I know men and boys will love Ruby.

For the most part though I don't think boys would read sports books with girls, since many of these novels openly discuss feelings. Also there are probably still boys who can't imagine that girls got game too and don't want to read about them. Though boys not reading these books is not a reason for the lack of sports novels with female protagonists. For at least the last 15 yrs, MG and YA has been geared toward a female audience. There are many bestselling series or books with female protagonists that many boys would have no interest in, so why not sports books?"

[In 1960 Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running on a sprained ankle at the time. She was awesome.]

comments

What an interesting post. I had never really considered it, but there aren't that many books about girls in sport. I do know one British writer who is writing a series for 7 to 10 year olds about a girls' soccer club, 'Girls FC' - Helena Pielichaty, and you can see her website at http://www.helena-pielichaty.com - I don't know if she's published in the USA, though.

Seems to me that the way girls' sports used to be written about was in the context of school stories, especially boarding school stories. It was then taken very seriously whose team won the cricket match, etc - rather like the Harry Potter Quidditch matches.

I did love Noel Streatfeild's books, and Skating Shoes was another favourite. Loved DJ Schwenk. I've heard great things about Gianna Z; that and Perfect Shot are on my list to read soon. And Whip It! And...:) This is great, lots to look at for the school library. Doret's list is fantastic -- I hadn't known about almost all of those titles she mentioned. Will have to check out Karen's list as well. Would be nice if the Women's Sports Foundation or other organization could team up with a literacy organization or library system for a promotional push to readers of both genders. I love posts like these -- with personality and good information. Thank you!

I can't believe I forgot to mention Justine's book! How to Ditch Your Fairy is lovely - sport school...

(Clearly someone needs to become Chris Crutcher for girls! Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has a serious athlete as a character, come to think of it. And an older book that I remembered as I read this post, but I cannot remember the name - Cynthia Voigt's novel about a group of first-year college girls who play on the school basketball team.)

Interesting post, Colleen!

Yay I love books that feature sports despite not being a sporty girl myself. I agree Travelling Pants has an excellent sports girl (even if she does insist on calling football soccer;). I picked up 20 Miles as soon as you spoke about it here Colleen and I have got to get some of the wonderful titles mentioned in this post.

Kelly Fineman

Let us not forget all the books that involve cheerleaders, which is decidedly sports-like in many schools (and if you've ever seen the major cheerleading competitions involving vaults and throws and the like, it's impossible to rule it out). Not all cheerleading squads in books (or schools, I guess) are majorly competitive with high levels of gymnastics and competitive dance, but some are.

And I've seen a few fantasy titles with sporty girls in them - for instance, Zara, the protagonist in Carrie Jones's Captivate series is a serious runner. And Kiki Strike has an ass-kicking title character who is skilled in the martial arts.

These are all wonderful books, aren't they? I was so happy to see the list as I'm sure there are many many girls out there looking for books like these that just can't find them. (We also need a Mike Lupica for girls as he has cornered the market on MG sports books for boys, I think.)

And yes, Katherine - I agree that sports used to be an integral part of boarding school stories and quite enjoyable. It seems like it has been replaced by spookiness and vampires in those settings now however. There's a big opening for an author who takes the plunge though!

I love the idea of sports and literacy organization teaming to promote sports novels for young readers. It seems like a perfect fit.

Author Keri Mikulski, who wrote Screwball has some sports books with female athlete coming out.
"Pretty Tough"

Its going to be published by Penquin.

I love the tag line - Sporty Fiction for girls who kick grass.

Hopefully, Mikulski will find her way here and tell us a little more about it like when the books will be out.

I am kicking myself for not remembering this so I could include it in my answer.

Another beyond amazing post! I'm an athlete but I don't think you need to be an athelte to read about them. There is a real need for more S&B. I've realized that I've only reviewed two books that involve girls and sports; Liar by Justine Larbalestier (she's a BEASTLY track runner) and Perfect Shot by Debbie Rigaud. I'm going to work to have at least one sports review a month because it is important (I really want to read Boost, Necessary Hunger, Derby Girl,and Girl, Overboard).

And the sprot I currently play doesn't even get mentioned in books; field hockey! But I also played basketball and soccer and did karate and I found a few books on those.

I loved A Strong Right Arm! Previous to reading it, I didn't know there were any women in the Negro Leagues. I think I've found my next nonfiction review title :)

And I agree with Olugbemisola, the Women's Sports Foundation should team up with a literacy program and publish an updated list of titles and work to promote sports in children's literature.

I haven't read it but The finnish Line by Linda Gerber is about a teen female skier. Oh and Run For Your Life which is based on a true story, has to do with track (obviously!)

Colleen - I discovered your list while doing research for my own blog page about sport's themed books for girls. I've given you a nod on my page - which is still a work in progress! Thanks for this wonderful resource!

Jennifer Barbee

Colleen - Thanks for the DOWN & DERBY mention. I love your blog, and this is a great topic. Shauna Cross, who wrote WHIP IT is a former derby teammate of mine, and an up-and-comer in the LA derby world, Pamela Ribon, just wrote a book called GOING IN CIRCLES based in part on her experience as a roller derby "fresh meat" skater. We derby gals love to write about our sport almost as much as we love playing it!

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