I adored Mike Lupica's 2006 novel Heat (review). It was a Cybils finalist for middle grade fiction, and one of my very favorite titles that year. So I had high expectations for Lupica's latest sports-themed novel for kids, The Underdogs. And I wasn't disappointed.
The Underdogs is about a football team for 12-year-olds, and the boy who fights for the team's very existence. Will Tyler is kid with a natural talent for the game. A key mistake that Will made the previous year cost his team the championship. And now, because his fading Pennsylvania town is so pressed for cash, it looks like his team won't even have a new season. They don't have money, they don't have a coach, they don't have uniforms, and they don't have enough players. The situation seems utterly hopeless. But Will, through sheer grit, makes the season possible.
I love Will. He's smart and determined, with realistic insecurities. Although he loves the team, and football, people matter to him more. Will's father is a beaten-down former high school football star, denied a future by a knee injury, raising Will alone. Despite his burdens, he's a good father, and I enjoyed the relationship between Will and Joe Tyler. Will also has a smart-aleck best friend, and a girl (who plays football) who catches his eye. And he has his gift for football. Like this:
"Fantasy football was just one more version of a game that had always come naturally to Will. He knew the stats he needed, for selecting a quarterback or running back or wide received, were already inside his own head, that he didn't need to look them up online. He knew them by heart.
Like football was his heart." (Chapter 06, ARC)
Will's hometown of Forbes is practically a character in the book, too. Here's an early description:
"Will knew all about it by now, the sad history of the business and the town, just because he'd grown up hearing his dad talk about it so much, like somehow his own life story was tied up with the story of the Forces Flyers. It was like a book Will had not just read, but re-read, a movie he had seen over and over again. Families gone. Friends gone. Houses empty and yards ignored. Will was pretty sure that the only successful business in Forbes was the one that printed the "For Sale" signs." (Chapter 02, ARC)
[Side note: Because this is a football book, the chapter numbers are formatted to look like numbers on a football jersey. A nice touch.]
The Underdogs is a great feel-good book, a must-read for anyone who lives and breathes football or is a sucker for underdog stories. If you've read a fair number of sports stories, or watched Friday Night Lights, you may find The Underdogs a tad predictable. There wasn't a whole lot, plotwise, that I didn't see coming. I did like the way the author handled the addition of a girl to the football team (controversial, but not taking over the whole story).
The whole setup in The Underdogs (the beaten down former athlete father, the town fading after the close of the factory, the motherless boy, the rivalry, the barely being able to scrape up enough kids for a team, and the need for this sports team to be a beacon of hope for a family and a town) seems almost like an homage to the genre. Like Lupica was thinking: let's include all the tropes of the genre, and see if we can still make it feel fresh. And I think that he succeeds pretty well.
The Underdogs is not groundbreaking literature. But it is a solid, character-driven sports story, with a nice balance of football play-by-play vs. human interaction, and an appealing setting and cast of characters. Lupica's reverence for sports, family, and small town America all come through like champions. Recommended for middle grade readers, and sports fans of all ages.
Publisher: Philomel (@PenguinTeen)
Publication Date: September 20, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book when available.
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.