The best books on sport for 8-12 year olds

Madelaine Healey
By Madelaine Healey

The Books I Picked & Why

The Crossover

By Kwame Alexander

Book cover of The Crossover

Why this book?

Kwame Alexander is an astoundingly good writer for children and young adults. The Crossover is a verse novel, telling the story of 12-year-old basketball talent Josh and his twin brother Jordan (the Black sons of a former pro basketballer). The verse novel is a format that as an adult I have to admit I avoid like the plague - but Alexander uses poetry to unfold the action of the novel like an actual game of basketball. “The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I'm delivering”. The pace is fast and mesmerizing, and this is a great one for pulling in reluctant readers. Middle-grade themes like friendships, dealing with new feelings, and struggling with family are all there, but delivered with a zest that will leave you satisfied and exhausted.

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Neymar: From the Playground to the Pitch

By Tom Oldfield, Matt Oldfield

Book cover of Neymar: From the Playground to the Pitch

Why this book?

This isn’t one you’ll enjoy reading over your kid’s shoulder unless you truly are a diehard soccer fan. Matt and Tom Oldfield’s series of soccer-star bios are comfort food for tween fans - a bland, seemingly never-ending diet of rags to riches stories to inspire every kid with dreams of the Premier League. The prose is undemanding: “With his mohawk dyed red this time, Neymar Jr walked onto the stage. He couldn’t believe what was happening. His goal had beaten brilliant strikes by Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi”. The story unfolds with a happy triumphalism: Neymar is spotted as a deft-footed child prodigy, he is scouted to the heights of Barcelona, he overcomes injuries, he puts the team first, he is a mega-star who does noble things for Brazil. If you’re not a soccer person, the Oldfields’ books on Lionel Messi, Harry Kane and Paul Pogba don’t read very differently. My son has read his very large collection of Oldfield titles probably 50 times each, though, and these are what he returns to when he’s tired and looking for a reading rest. Like The Babysitters Club or Choose Your Own Adventure for kids who grew up in the 1980s, these are the books that when he grows up will instantly take him back to this time in his life.

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Roller Girl

By Victoria Jamieson

Book cover of Roller Girl

Why this book?

Your kids may have no idea what roller derby is (I didn’t), but I guarantee they’ll love reading about this tough, fast, aggressive sport, with its creative, counter-cultural vibe. Just about every character is a girl or a woman, and as the mother of boys I’m so happy to see them reading a book like this. The main character, Astrid, is sweet but strong, with a tetchy, vulnerable style of middle school humor. She suffers through friendship issues kids will identify with, and deals with them in some fantastic ways: you’ll love her decision to brave her mother’s fury and dye her hair blue. Astrid’s relationship with her mother is beautifully drawn - this woman isn’t perfect, but she parents calmly and lovingly, and they get through things together.

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Jackie & Me

By Dan Gutman

Book cover of Jackie & Me

Why this book?

Kids who love the minutiae of sport - collecting the cards, following the stats, learning the teams and their star players - are often drawn to history as well. Dan Gutman gets this, and the Baseball Card Adventures is a brilliant series for giving young readers a way into a nuanced US history. In Jackie and Me, the hero, Stosh, is thrown out of Little League for attacking a pitcher who mocked his Polish heritage - “You know you can’t hit me, Stoshack. Because you’re a big, slow, ugly, dumb Polack!” Back at school, Stosh elects to write a book report on Jackie Robinson, and uses his magical baseball card to travel back in time. Stosh experiences Robinson’s first Major League game and the breaking of the color bar in baseball, finding a new perspective on difference and discrimination. Gutman writes colorful dialogue that kids really respond to, and he doesn’t dumb down the history, either. The inclusion of historical photos and news articles is a really clever invitation for kids to think about the interweaving of fiction and history.

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Ghost, Volume 1

By Jason Reynolds

Book cover of Ghost, Volume 1

Why this book?

Castle Crenshaw, better known as Ghost, is the dirt-poor, Black son of a single mother. The two of them have fled the family home with Ghost’s father shooting at them (“But the craziest thing was, I felt like the shot - loudest sound I ever heard - made my legs move even faster”). A coach spots Ghost’s exceptional talent when he takes an instant dislike to an albino kid in an overpriced tracksuit and races him in a burst of anger. Ghost joins the team, and struggles with a sport that proves to be demanding and exhausting, as well as forging relationships with teammates battling troubles of their own. This one is great because it's funny: Ghost’s voice captures that exact innocent, nervous sarcasm of the middle schooler trying out different personalities in an uncertain and always slippery social context (“really, I was just happy something unboring was finally happening). It’s also great for structuring a story around a sport that’s grueling and less glamorous than the more usual ball games that dominate sports writing for kids. Ghost is a window into a far less white and less privileged existence than you’ll find in most middle school novels, and kids just love this story of an underdog with a beautiful talent, who makes plenty of poor choices along the journey.

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