Six Innings, by James Preller, is a middle grade novel set during a little league championship game. The structure of the book mirrors the game itself, 12 chapters, one for each half-inning of the six-inning game, plus very brief pre- and post-game sections. There are line-ups, box scores, and announcer's remarks in bold text. Preller describes every pitch of every inning. You see reviews sometimes that say "there's baseball in it, but that's not what the book is about." But I would argue that Six Innings is about baseball. It's about the purity of the game. The flow and ebb from inning to inning. The dynamics between the players. The role of the pitcher and the role of the coach. This book is a veritable ode to baseball. For example:
"Sam passed the time by thinking about baseball. It wasn't exactly a choice, like an essay topic selected for a seventh-grade English paper. Sam never "decided" to think about baseball, just as he never "decided" to have black hair. He awoke and baseball was there, a hanging curveball in his consciousness, white leather wrapped around a cushioned cork core, hovering in the center of his mind. Baseball was always there." (Page 2)
"Nothing happens without the pitcher's permission. Once he throws, time itself begins." (Page 20)
"And so it goes, typical baseball chatter, the talk that fills dugouts everywhere, the words that occupy the spaces the game provides, those gaps when nothing much seems to happen. To love baseball, to truly love the game, you've got to enjoy those empty places, the time to think, absorb, and shoot the breeze. A ball, a strike, a grounder to short. The slow rhythm of the game, a game of accumulation, of patterns, gathering itself toward the finish, like the first few miles of a marathon, not dramatic except for what it might mean later in the race." (Page 22)
But Six Innings is about more than baseball, too. There's a bit of a mystery over why Sam, a boy who lives and breathes baseball, is announcing instead of playing in the game. There's conflict over Sam's relationship with his best friend, Mike, who is playing. There are parent/child dynamics, and there is sibling rivalry. None of it is high drama, but all of it is the stuff of real life. In fact, I think that the whole book is an example of Preller's second quote, above. The rest of the book takes place within the gaps of the baseball game. And while the game itself is exciting, it's that stuff in the gaps that makes the book special.
Preller provides insightful character sketches of players and announcer, using deft descriptions to get to the heart of each character. For example:
"... he plays like his hair is on fire." (Page 11)
"Everyone calls him Nando. And he is very fast. Everything Nando does, from eating waffles to fielding grounders, is restless and quick. He swings in short, choppy strokes--a slap hitter, not a power threat." (Page 13)
"Unmarried, without children of his own, Uncle Jimmy figured he had love to spare, so he poured it over his nephew like a cooler of Gatorade, just splashed it down on Carter's head." (Page 48)
Don't you love that image? Love pouring over a kid's head like Gatorade?
I really enjoyed Six Innings. It's beautifully written. I found myself sharing passages aloud as I was reading. And the end of the book brought tears to my eyes. I'm not sure that Six Innings will work well for kids who aren't already sports fans. I think that the pitch by pitch detail could be hard to get through for some kids. But that's ok. Six Innings is a great book to give to kids who do like to read about sports, one that will effortlessly take them beyond sports and will have them caring about the characters and the small dramas. This is one that I'll be keeping, and putting on my shelf next to Mike Lupica's Heat (one of my favorites of 2006).
One other point I'd like to make about this book is that it's clearly a labor of love for the publisher. Feiwel & Friends made a little baseball logo to go on the spine of the book. There are little baseballs marking the section divisions within the chapters. And there's a picture of a baseball at the end of the book, with signatures from the members of the publication team. This is a book that's been cared for all along the path to publication, and it shows. Highly recommended.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.