Have you and your kids been missing organized sports? Are you bummed that the Olympics were postponed until next summer? Let’s channel that need for sports action into something safe: reading!
Reading and sports may seem like opposites. After all, have you ever gotten sweaty reading? But they have more in common than you might think: they both require skill, provide an opportunity to appreciate someone else’s talent, and teach you lessons about life that you didn’t even realize you were learning while doing them. And both books and sports will lure you in and then keep you hooked, wanting more.
Children’s Books About Sports
Here's a variety of HMH sports books for kids that will provide some all-star fun this summer while we wait until it’s safe to get back on the field and in the stands.
Pre-K and Early Grades
Of all the major sports, baseball is the one that lends itself to storytelling the most. With its slower pace and a field where the players stay put in one place (more or less), it allows for both individual and team stories to emerge. That may be why there are so many books about it for young children.
It also is the sport most steeped in American history, and Audrey Vernick—along with illustrator Steven Salerno—has written three books that illuminate forgotten moments in baseball history.
- Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball TeamVernick tells the story of the 12 Acerra brothers from New Jersey who made up one entire semipro baseball team in 1938.
- The Funniest Man in BaseballVernick recalls Max Patkin, a minor league ball player who was injured and invented a new life as a baseball clown.
- The Kid From Diamond StreetVernick rescues from history Edith Houghton, who as a 10-year-old in 1922 joined the professional women’s baseball team, the Philadelphia Bobbies and became a star.
Baseball is played in other countries, of course, and many major league players come from South America. Henry Horenstein’s Baseball in the Barrios is a photo essay where a 9-year-old Venezuelan boy introduces readers to his family, his friends, and his favorite sport: baseball. A map and a glossary of baseball terms in Spanish and English is included, making this book useful to children of all ages, and class libraries too.
Leaping from real life to the fantastical, Brian Lies joins in with Bats at the Ballgame, part of the utterly charming Bats series (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, and Bats in the Band). The bats are attending a night game (of course), and the illustrations—which spread across the full page and are often two pages—are filled with details and baseball lore, as is the rhyming text. Several spreads are depicted upside down, as that’s how the bats in the stands are hanging.
Baseball and summer may be inextricably linked, but there are so many sports you can read about! How about rodeo? Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy, written by Andrea David Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is the true story of the most famous Black rodeo performer who ever lived. The book includes a short section on the history of Black people in the West as well as a bibliography for further reading.
A highlight of the Summer Olympic Games is always gymnastics. We may have to wait until we can see Simone Biles and her out-of-this-world abilities, but you can still enjoy reading about a previous record smasher in Nadia: the Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Still by Karlin Gray. The book follows Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comăneci from being a fearless little girl climbing trees in Romania to her perfect routines at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
If you want to explore more than one sport at a time or engage children who are not interested in sports, then What Am I Playing/¿Que juego? by Pamela Zagarenski fits the bill. Part of the Good Beginnings/Un buen comienzo series, the answers to the question are presented in both English and Spanish and include outdoor sports, playground games, and some indoor activities.
There is a wider array of sports books written for the middle grades than for early readers. Kwame Alexander’s books in verse are perfect for any reluctant reader who likes sports—and his books are guaranteed to make you want to move.
- Crossover tells the story of 12-year-old twins during the course of a basketball season as they are forced to confront how growing up will affect their twinship.
- Rebound focuses on the twins’ father when he was their age and the fateful summer he discovered basketball, jazz, and some family history.
- In Booked, Alexander uses soccer as the backdrop to a story about the power of words as 12-year-old Nick struggles with problems at home, a bully, and the need to impress a girl he likes. There is also a memorable rapping librarian who turns Nick on to books.
Meanwhile, in Ten: A Soccer Story, author Shamini Flint introduces us to Maya, a biracial (Indian and British) girl who loves soccer and is trying to fit in at school while also defying her grandmother’s dictum that girls should be quiet and obedient and not play soccer. Maya is feisty and insightful, and because the book is told in the first person, the emotions seem raw and real.
When the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were postponed, the Paralympic Games were postponed, too. Fortunately, you can still read about how they were created in A Sporting Chance by Lori Alexander. The book recounts the story of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who escaped Nazi Germany and settled in England. There, he treated paraplegics and fought for their right to live a full life, including physical movement. He created the Paralympic Games in 1952, and Alexander uses archival photographs, stories of Paralympic athletes, and illustrations to tell his compelling and moving biography.
Teen and Young Adult
Sports can sometimes seem like too obvious a metaphor for stories involving struggle, overconfidence, or risk, and no one is quicker to roll their eyes at the obvious than a teenager. But sometimes, it is the perfect way to frame a coming-of-age story, and Carl Deuker is a master at it. Deuker has written nine novels set in the world of high school sports, usually basketball or football, that also deal with complex social issues such as drugs, sexual abuse, and cheating. His latest is Golden Arm, which deals with economic inequality. Laz, who lives in a trailer park on the wrong side of town, is a baseball pitching phenom. He gets an opportunity to play across town for the rich kids’ team and be drafted by the major leagues. He’s torn between taking the chance and the pull of family, who needs him.
Another story of rich-versus-poor in sports can be found in Catch Rider by Jennifer H. Lyne, which is set among the horse show world of Virginia. Fourteen-year-old Sid has a way with horses and has been working with her uncle since childhood. She can break in and train a horse, and she rides like a pro. She wants to become a catch rider—a show rider who can ride anything with hooves—and here we follow along when she’s given a chance to follow her dreams.
The Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock follows basketball star D.J. Schwenk as she navigates high school crushes, college scouts, and her own family’s secrets and learns to find her own voice.
Falconry is not a sport that has had too many novels written about it, but it plays a huge role in Flip the Bird by Kym Brunner. In it, a teenager who is desperate to prove himself to his falconer father falls for a girl who is an animal rights activist. He finds himself lying to both her and his family, and he needs to figure out what is most important to him.
As we all wait and see what will happen with professional sports this summer, there are plenty of children's books about sports to keep us occupied and active, if only in looking for a quiet place to read.
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