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Opportunities Instead of Opponents: Exploring Competition in New Middle-Grade Series, a guest post by Mary Amato

We give our kids lots of opportunities to compete, whether it’s in sports, academics, or the arts. We teach them to train physically, to grind through the drills, to build up their strength, speed, stamina—whatever the performance requires. But how do we teach our kids to develop a healthy mindset toward competition?

One way is to make sure and share real-life stories of goodwill between athletes. Take this year when Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi decided, after tying, to share an Olympic gold in the men’s high jump at the Tokyo Games rather than settle the score with a jump off. Each agreed that their opponent deserved the medal as much as they did. “This is beyond sport,” Barshim said, according to Time Magazine. “This is the message we deliver to the young generation.”

Life Lessons From Sport and Beyond, the inspiring and information-packed podcast from British sports commentator Simon Mundie is full of such stories from world-class athletes, coaches, and psychologists and can be a great teaching tool. 

But what else can we—the teachers, coaches, media specialists, and parents—do on the ground, at school, or at home to help our children and teens when they come face to face with the negative aspects of competition? How do we help them deal with specific emotions that can arise during competitive experiences, emotions such as toxic jealousy, defeatism, or self-loathing? 

As a children’s and YA book writer, I am exploring this in my new middle-grade fiction series called Star Striker. In the first book, Game On!, the main character Albert is overwhelmed with jealousy during his first middle-school band concert when his rival on the soccer field, Trey Patterson, steps out to perform a special saxophone duet with Albert’s crush, a classmate named Jessica.

As Mr. Chaimbers introduced the name of the song, Albert continued to drill his glare at Trey’s back, his jealousy a hot magma bubbling throughout his body. A series of fantasies fired through his mind: Trey tripping, Trey blowing a hideously wrong note, the audience laughing, the audience booing, the audience throwing rotten tomatoes, Trey having a panic attack, a legion of vampire bats swooping down from the rafters and chasing him off the stage . . . Fail, Trey, Fail.

Yes, Albert’s jealousy is extreme, but some of level jealousy is a common response to competition—and it never feels good. It’s hard to get into the positive flow state that makes for a great performance or to enjoy performing when your mind is churning with negativity. And it’s hard to sustain a life-long love for your art or your sport if your experience is mired in emotional toxicity. 

In Game On!, Albert learns a three-step meditation from his extraordinary new coach Kayko, and this helps him on the field, at home, and on stage. Here is the nutshell:

  1. Accept without judgement what you are feeling.
  2. Send kind thoughts to yourself.
  3. Send kind thoughts to the person with whom you are in conflict (an opponent, a rival, etc.)

My boiled-down, three-step recipe is based on a combination of the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and its offshoot Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as well as metta meditation, which is a practice involving sending kind thoughts both inward and outward. 

So what might this process look like in action? As Albert’s rival and his crush begin their duet and jealousy rears its ugly head, Albert begins his three-step silent meditation. He first acknowledges his negative impulses and responds first by forgiving himself for having these thoughts. Then he focuses his attention on sending kind thoughts to his rival Trey instead of silently chanting for Trey to fail. May you play well, Trey, Albert chants. May you feel joy. And here’s what happens:

Something unexpected rose up from way underneath the hot magma: a tiny bubble of delight. He was shocked, but he actually felt better wishing Trey well than wishing disaster on him. He felt large instead of small. May you play well, Trey. May you feel joy . . .

It felt good. He imagined energy spilling out of him and traveling through invisible threads . . . to Trey and to Jessica. He imagined that they could feel his energy flowing into them and that it radiated out through their fingertips into their saxophones and out into the auditorium. He imagined it traveling to the ears of his nana, his mother, his sister. A smile spread across Albert’s face. This was good. This was right.

This meditation not only helps Albert to feel better, it helps him to perform better when it’s his turn to play, and it helps him to enjoy the entire experience. 

This three-step meditation might sound too saccharine or too simplistic to some. It is positive, radically so. And it is simple in theory. But in practice, it isn’t easy to acknowledge negative impulses, or to forgive ourselves for thinking negative thoughts, or to summon the good will to genuinely wish rivals well. All three of these steps require practice. Just as we teach our athletes, pianists, and dancers to practice their physical skills, and we could also teach them to practice these psychological skills. 

I didn’t set out to write the Star Striker series to teach this meditation. The series is not a self-help textbook. It’s an adventurous, sci-fi sports story. But authors find that our own experiences have a way of seeping into the work. I’m not an athlete, but I’ve felt anxiety about performing as a musician. And I’ve learned about athletic competition through my 26-year-old son Simon Amato’s experience as an athlete, trainer, and co-founder of the fitness company Life of Gains. I know that competition can be a driver of personal growth if it’s framed in a healthy way. 

Instead of responding to rivalry with the desire to tear down an opponent, we can respond with the desire to build up our own skills. “Training with or playing against athletes that are stronger can push you to work harder,” my son Simon says. “Opponents can be opportunities. I’m always grateful when I get to play a game against great athletes.” 

Over the years, I have received so many letters from young readers who have let me know that a character’s experience has moved them—even transformed them. With this new series, I am hoping that Albert’s willingness to look directly at his own challenges and respond with positivity will resonate with my readers and inspire them to do the same.

Meet the author

Mary Amato is the award-winning author of over twenty-five works of fiction for children and young adults. Her latest book Star Striker: Game On! is about a 13-year-old athlete who not only deals with ordinary middle-school challenges but is also recruited by an extraordinary team of aliens to play in a high-stakes interplanetary soccer tournament. www.maryamato.com

About Star Striker: Game On!

Join Albert and a group of ragtag aliens as they dribble, cross, and score across the galaxy in this soccer-themed story of unlikely friendships.

The day that aliens abducted 13-year-old Albert Kinney was the day he was hoping to make the school soccer team.But that’s the way life works sometimes, especially for Albert.

Astonishingly the Zeenods, don’t want to harm Albert, they want him to play soccer. And so, Albert jumps at the chance to join the Zeenods. Yet just as he is introduced to the specifics of their game and all their high-tech gear, he faces a series of direct threats to his life. Does someone have a mysterious vendetta against Albert? Or does their first opponent, the ruthless team from Planet Tev, want to guarantee that they win?

Action-packed, yet filled with humor and heart, Game On! is the first book in a series that features thrilling play-by-play soccer scenes and an intergalactic plot with far-reaching consequences for the Zeenods—and Earth.

ISBN-13: 9780823449118
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Series: Star Striker
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

A Case for More Girls’ Sports Teams in YA, a guest post by Emma Kress

While sports books featuring boys have been on shelves for decades, those depicting girls as equally committed and serious about their sport could fit on a much smaller set of shelves. As an English teacher, I taught many female students who were deeply dedicated to their sports, and yet I had few books to place in their hands when they were looking for a book to act as a mirror, rather than a window.

That said, there were a few. When I first started writing Dangerous Play back in 2014, there were several wonderful books featuring sporty girls: Dairy Queen (2006), by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, remains one of my favorite books about a girl athlete; and Miranda Kenneally started publishing books about girl athletes back in 2011. But my athletic girl students wanted more.

Thankfully, this is changing.

Now, there are several wonderful books featuring devoted girl athletes. Just this year, we can add young-adult debuts like Holly Green’s In the Same Boat, Sajni Patel’s The Knockout, and Mariko Turk’s The Other Side of Perfect to our shelves. And last year, I was blown away by Yamile Saied Mendez’s Furia, Sarah Henning’s Throw Like A Girl, and Jennifer Iacopelli’s Break the Fall.

Thrillingly, there are more athletic books featuring non-binary characters too. Check out contemporary young-adult debuts The Passing Playbook, by Isaac Fitzsimmons, and May the Best Man Win, by ZR Ellor.

It’s all the more important that these feminist athletic books exist because in the past, toxic masculinity was as much a part of sports culture as cleats and sneakers. In so many movies and books, not only was there no space left on the page for the serious girl athlete, but we had to swallow casual misogyny along with our Gatorade. Thankfully, that’s changing. Still, there’s more to do.

In the future, I hope we see more books that feature not just female athletes, but diverse teams of athletic girls working together to achieve their goals. Because while the number of books about athletic girls has increased, few depict girls’ sports teams.

After having written Dangerous Play, which seeks to represent a diverse sports team environment, I think it’s safe to say choosing to focus on a single athletic girl rather than a full sports team might be a matter of writerly sanity. Dangerous Play has a 26+-person cast and phew, it was difficult to juggle that many characters let alone develop them.

And yet, I think it’s important to shine a light on the special and intense friendships that can happen on a competitive sports team, especially for girls. I can list dozens of movies that celebrate bromances on the ice, court, or field. I love sports team movies like Miracle, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, and Friday Night Lights. I cheer louder at that final underdog victory because of those engaging friendships. But where are our movies celebrating underdog girls’ sports teams and their powerful friendships?

A League of Their Own is pretty much it. Bend It Like Beckham is wonderful, but only depicts the friendship of two members of the team. Ditto for Bring It On. And while I love A League of Their Own, it came out twenty-nine years ago. In this age of real-life GOATs (Greatest Of All Time athletes) like Simone Biles, Lindsay Vonn, Lisa Leslie, Serena Williams, and the entire US Women’s National Soccer Team we can do better. We need to do better.

Solidarity and sisterhood are critical parts of my feminism. And, while I adore a good romance, I think for most teens, romantic relationships aren’t the defining relationships of their teen years—friendships are. And friendships can be so much more complex and intense when we place them inside the pressure cooker of a competitive and grueling sport.

Athletes on school teams practice several hours every day during the season. Pre-season is filled with pick-up games, demanding tryouts, and “two-a-day” practices. Then, there are the long road trips on stinky school buses. Anyone who has participated in a school play or spent long hours in a newspaper or yearbook office knows the sort of friendships that can bloom during those endless nights. There’s something about those long hours that fosters inside jokes and shorthand slang, made-up dances and elaborate handshakes. There’s an everyday intimacy that develops: you know what someone looks like when they fail a test or forget to eat; you know how they like to sit and the words they overuse. When this shared time is over a shared passion, real intimacy and trust develop. Sports only heightens these connections. Team athletes see each other at their most physically powerful and most physically vulnerable. When they work together to beat the odds, stretch their limits, and claim that trophy, they create a world in which they are all the main characters. They create a world in which power and victory are shared.

I believe that for feminism to move forward, we must be intersectional. What better way to examine intersectional feminist friendships than through a sports team? Let’s see girls of color, trans girls, body-positive girls, queer girls, and girls from varied socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds on the same teams. If we want to see a future of greater equality and empathy, we need to give the teen girls of today books in which they see groups of diverse girls laughing together, crying together, and working together toward a common goal. If we want to see a future of greater equality and empathy, perhaps we might start by imagining worlds in which the glory is shared.

After all, girl power is best with friends.

Meet the Author

Photo credit: Erin Summerill

Emma Kress is a long-time educator and 2014 finalist for NY State Teacher of the Year. She’s a graduate of Vassar College, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family in Saratoga Springs, NY. Dangerous Play is her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter and TikTok @emma_kress and Instagram @kress.emma, or at www.emmakress.com

About Dangerous Play

Designer: Aurora Parlagreco; Artist: Laura Callaghan

A fierce team of girls takes back the night in this propulsive, electrifying, and high-stakes YA debut from Emma Kress

Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.

But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments, but one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.

Perfect for fans who loved the female friendships of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie and the bite of Courtney Summer’s Sadie.

ISBN-13: 9781250750488
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: Heroine by Mindy McGinnis

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

 

 

heroineHeroine by Mindy McGinnis (ISBN-13: 9780062847195 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 03/12/2019)

★ 03/01/2019

Gr 9 Up—All it takes is one prescription to kick-start a student athlete’s frightening descent into opioid addiction. After surgery following a car accident, Ohio softball phenom Mickey Catalan is prescribed OxyContin for pain. When she starts to run out of the Oxy she relies on to get through her physical therapy, she gets pills from a dealer, through whom she meets other young addicts. Mickey rationalizes what she’s doing and sees herself as a good girl who’s not like others who use drugs (like new friend Josie, who uses because she’s “bored”). Mickey loves how the pills make her feel, how they take her out of herself and relieve the pressures in her life. Soon she’s stealing, lying, and moving on to heroin. Her divorced parents, including her recovering addict stepmother, suspect something is going on, but Mickey is skilled at hiding her addiction. A trigger warning rightfully cautions graphic depictions of drug use. In brutally raw detail, readers see Mickey and friends snort powders, shoot up, and go through withdrawal. Intense pacing propels the gripping story toward the inevitable conclusion already revealed in the prologue. An author’s note and resources for addiction recovery are appended. This powerful, harrowing, and compassionate story humanizes addiction and will challenge readers to rethink what they may believe about addicts. VERDICT From the horrific first line to the hopeful yet devastating conclusion, McGinnis knocks it out of the park. A first purchase for all libraries serving teens.

TLTer Karen Jensen also discusses and highly recommends Heroine by Mindy McGinnis in this previous TLT post.

Book Review: LGBTQ+ Athletes Claim the Field: Striving for Equality by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and Alex Jackson Nelson

Publisher’s description

athletesIn 2015, the world watched as soccer star Abby Wambach kissed her wife after the US women’s World Cup victory. Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league first baseman David Denson came out as gay. And Caitlyn (born Bruce) Jenner, an Olympic decathlete, came out as transgender.

It hasn’t always been this way. Many great athletes have stayed in the closet their whole lives, or at least until retirement. Social attitudes, institutional policies, and laws are slow to change, but they are catching up. Together, athletes, families, educators, allies, and fans are pushing for competitive equity so that every athlete, regardless of identity, can have the opportunity to play at their very best.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I am always especially glad to see new nonfiction for teens on LGBTQIA+ topics. It’s hard for me to name more than a small handful of recentish nonfiction on this topic. The book begins with an introduction by Alex Jackson Nelson, a trans man who works with LGBTQIA+ youth and trains others who do, too. He talks about the importance of sports in his younger life and how once he identified as trans, he wondered if sports was just another place he wouldn’t fit in or be able to see himself represented. He goes on to discuss gendered sports teams and not really feeling comfortable on men’s teams now because of his experience growing up participating on girls’ teams. He also addresses how fraught the question, “What sports did you play in high school?” can be for a trans individual (for instance, if you’re a trans man but answer “volleyball” or “softball,” are you then coming out to someone who might not know you’re trans? Is your a risk to your safety in answering this question? etc). His intro nicely sets up the forthcoming chapters that address all of the subjects he mentions.

 

The bulk of the book focuses on homophobia and transphobia in the sports world, early pioneers, contemporary players who have come out, stereotypes, challenges LGBTQIA+ athletes face, and so much more. As a person with little to no knowledge of sports and even less interest in sports, I found this whole book super interesting. I really had no idea of how few professional athletes have come out over the years. I had heard various names, of course, but was still kind of staggering to read about Michael Sam, the first Division I football player to ever come out while still actively playing and the first openly gay man in the NFL. All of this was in 2014. 2014! Two years ago! THE FIRST. It kind of seems impossible. There are many more stories like Sam’s throughout the book. Cronn-Mills doesn’t just talk about players, either. She looks at how discrimination affects coaches, too, such as this story about coaches at UMD (my alma mater) from a few years ago. She also discusses the WNBA and its LGBTQIA+ fan base, as well as looks at women’s soccer. It’s in this passage, where she also looks at men’s soccer, that another jaw-dropping statistic shows up: Robbie Rogers, a soccer player who came out in 2013, “joined basketball player Jason Collins as one of the first two out athletes in all five major North American sports leagues.” IN 2013! 3 years ago! ONE OF THE FIRST TWO! The world has come a long way, but HOLY CRAP is there still so far to go.

 

Other chapters look at early out (or not out) LGBTQ+ athletes, such as Bill Tilden, who came out publicly in 1948 after retiring from tennis, Dave Kopay, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Glenn Burke, Greg Louganis, and more. Chapter 3 looks at transgender and intersex athletes, sharing the stories of Gabrielle Ludwig, Caster Semenya, and others. This chapter also addresses specific issues these individuals face in sports, such as people fearing trans people have a competitive advantage (for example, if assigned male at birth but identifying and competing as a female) and gender verification practices and issues. Another chapter looks at the gatekeepers—those who regulate the rules of play and eligibility. I found this a particularly illuminating chapter as it examines changing policies. The book wraps up with a look at where we are now and where we can go from here, including some solutions and strategies for combating homophobia and transphobia in sports. An open letter from a gay college football player, timeline, source notes, glossary, selected bibliography, and further information round out this title.

 

This thorough look at LGBTQ+ athletes includes lots of color pictures, personal stories, and is immensely readable. Despite looking at the long history of discrimination and the current issues that plague LGBTQ+ athletes, the overall tone is one of hope and progress. All public and school libraries would benefit from adding this to their collections. Be sure to pull it out when making Pride displays or LGBT History Month displays. The focus on athletes may help this find readers who may not otherwise pick up a book on LGBTQ+ history or issues. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781467780124

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 08/01/2016

Book Review: Jerkbait by Mia Siegert

Publisher’s description

jerkbaitEven though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world.

Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path.

How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I overuse the phrase “rage blackout.” I’m sure I’ve claimed that 2/3 of all things in existence have given me a rage blackout. I’m easily annoyed. BUT. BUT. This book gave me a rage blackout. The parents are AWFUL. The way Robbie’s teammates treat him is AWFUL. And did I mention that the parents are AWFUL? Because they are. But we’ll talk about them later.

 

Tristan has always felt like he’s lived in Robbie’s shadow. Though they both play hockey (and their former hockey player father is their manager), Robbie’s the star, the one who will be drafted and go on to a huge career. But not if it gets out that he’s depressed. That he’s tried to kill himself three times. That he’s gay. At least, according to their monster of a father. All of that is bad press for Robbie, so the obvious thing to do is cover it up, not address any of the very serious issues, and focus on that goal: getting drafted. Sure. Great parenting. Your kid will be fine. You’re doing a good job. 

 

(You can come join me in my rage blackout—it’s kind of satisfying to get so mad.)

 

I could yell for paragraphs about their cruddy parenting and extreme denial, but I won’t. You get the idea already, I’m sure, that they suck. They pull him from the hospital early after attempt number one so he doesn’t miss a hockey game. They cover up the truth with lies, don’t do anything to help Robbie, and basically blame Tristan for what’s going on with Robbie AND make him responsible for watching over him to prevent future issues. Tristan, who quits hockey after some epic homophobic bullying, just wants to focus on his burgeoning theater career. He loves theater, has a knack for singing, dancing, and acting, and wants to grab the opportunities in front of him. But that’s hard to do when you’re supposed to be keeping your depressed wreck of a brother from committing suicide. Things become even more complicated and convoluted when Tristan learns Robbie is gay. Robbie is terrified of what coming out will mean for his life and his career—but not so terrified that he doesn’t out himself in an effort to save Tristan from some bullying. His teammates react just as terribly as you can possibly imagine. And when his parents find out? It’s a nightmare.

 

There’s a lot to talk about with this book. Siegert is tackling big topics: teenage sports careers; being not just a closeted gay teen but a closeted gay teen athlete; sibling/twin relationships; depression and suicide attempts; crappy parents; crappy friendships; homophobia; stigma with mental illness, and so much more. Plus, the book takes a big twist near the end when Robbie gets the brilliant idea that the answer to all of their problems is running away to go stay with this older dude he met online. That never turns out well, does it? And in this case, it REALLY, REALLY goes badly. Though it ends on a hopeful note, this is not a light read at all. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for all things with the exception of the way Robbie and Tristan grow closer and more supportive of each other. It’s a dark, upsetting, frustrating, painful look at the pressure on teen athletes, at what happens when mental illness is ignored and untreated, and at how horribly scary coming out can be, especially for teens whose parents are hateful and unsupportive. Bleak but powerful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781631630668

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press

Publication date: 05/03/2016