I was a bit lukewarm about Mike Lupica's previous children's book, Travel Team. I'm happy that Heat was shortlisted for the Cybils in middle grade fiction (the category I was judging in). Because otherwise I might not have read it, and I LOVED LOVED LOVED Heat. It's about a twelve-year-old boy named Michael Arroyo, who is a baseball pitcher. And he's not just any pitcher. He has "the heat" in his arm that makes great pitchers stand out. His team has a chance to make it to the Little League World Series, in large part because of his pitching ability. Making it to the World Series is critically important for Michael, because it will fulfill a dream of his father's, and his own.
But Michael has problems, too. His mother died when he was younger, and his father has been absent for several months. Recently, some of the adults in the community have begun asking Michael and his older brother Carlos difficult questions. Carlos is working multiple jobs to support them, but if word gets out about their father, the brothers fear that they will be separated, and put into the foster care system.
Things get worse when a rival player accuses Michael of being older than his 12 years, and hence ineligible to play Little League. Michael can't prove his age because his birth certificate was lost when he emigrated from Cuba. And without his father to help, he and Carlos don't know where to turn. As the playoffs begin, Michael finds himself on the sidelines.
The story isn't all gloom and doom, of course. Michael has several things going for him. He has his love of baseball, his loyal best friend Manny, and a grandmotherly neighbor who cooks for him. And he meets a girl, a very special girl named Ellie. With help from his friends, Michael is able to confront his demons. The ending is heart-warming, and may require tissues.
I loved the characters in this book, especially Michael, whose loneliness in the absence of his parents is palpable. His usually empty apartment serves as an image of his solitude, when he's not with Manny. Manny is one of my all-time favorite sidekicks (though some have called him too good to be true). He's completely loyal to Michael, a catcher willing to take second place to his pitcher. Manny's optimism provides a nice counterbalance to Michael's angst. Here's an example:
Michael mumbled his reply on purpose.
"I didn't quite catch that," Manny said.
"I said you're right."
Manny Cabrera, light on his feet as always, more graceful than all the people who called him No Neck knew, danced now on the Bronx street corner, Michael's catcher celebrating as if he'd just scored a touchdown.
Here's another example, after Michael has an experience that turns out expectedly well. Michael thinks:
Maybe that was the way you should go through life, if you really thought about it. Maybe if you didn't expect good things to happen to you, well, when something did, it would seem much bigger and better than it actually was.
In Manny's view of the world, there was always another sundae coming along that needed another cherry, just because Manny believed every single day was going to be the best of his whole life.
Michael tried to remember the last time he had felt that way about stuff.
But he couldn't.
Thank goodness he has Manny! I also enjoyed Michael's romance with Ellie in this book. It's a very PG sort of romance, boy likes girl, girl runs away, girl comes back and torments boy a little bit, etc. Misunderstandings ensue. The way that the two circle around one another, approaching and retreating, feels real to me.
This book is also a love letter to baseball. People who aren't baseball fans might find that some of the play by play scenes describing games are too detailed (though they are skimmable). But if you enjoy baseball at all, then Heat is not to be missed. I haven't researched this, but I suspect that the names of many of the characters in this novel are deliberately chosen because they are the names of baseball players.
Heat touches on several themes, without ever feeling heavy-handed about it. Friendship, sportsmanship, loyalty to one's teammates, what it means to be a family, how hard it is for kids who don't have parents in our society, and the immigrant experience. Cops and social workers are portrayed as wanting to genuinely help kids, as are several other adults in the story. The family bonds between Michael and Carlos are strong.
What more can I say, without giving too much of the story away? This is a book with a lot to offer to any reader. Strong characters, humor, and a well-drawn plot. For baseball fans, it's not to be missed. (Although, I personally think that the book could have been improved by talking more about the Red Sox, and less about the Yankees, but I recognize that as a personal bias.) But the main reason to read it is that Heat is a story with heart.
Author: Mike Lupica
Publisher: Philomel (Penguin)
Original Publication Date: April 2006
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Purchased it. This is a Cybils short list title for Middle Grade Fiction.
Other Blog Reviews: Semicolon, Big A little a, Rave Reviews Log. See also a post about Mike Lupica at Book Moot.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.