Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Northrop, Michael. Plunked. Scholastic, 2012. 247 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-29714-1. This book is appropriate for grades 4 to 7, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level and interests (3 stars out of 4).

I make no apologies for liking baseball and baseball books. Just as I subscribed to Baseball Digest as a kid, now (as an older kid) I like to read about the National Pastime as soon as I hear that pitchers and catchers have reported to their Florida and Arizona residences. Fortunately, publishers know there are other folks like me out there and they always accommodate us with new baseball fiction. The one I chose this year, Plunked by Michael Northrop, did not disappoint. The former Sports Illustrated for Kids writer produced a well-constructed retelling of one of the oldest tales in our collective history: the overcoming of The Fear. Every epic/tragic hero, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Moses to Achilles and Hector to Sir Gawain to Hamlet to Luke Skywalker and Winston Smith, has had to face his/her darkest fear to move to the next plane of existence. For some, that plane represents religious freedom, liberation of the soul, the chivalric code, revenge for murder most foul, submission to a higher positive power (the Force) or a higher negative power (Big Brother). Protagonist Jack Mogens’ mission is simpler: he simply wants to make his local Little League team before he gets killed.
Sixth grade has been reasonably kind to Jack Mogens so far. He is at the top of the food chain as an upperclassman at Tall Pines Elementary, he has a secure spot among the jocks in the lunchroom, and he has a pretty good shot at starting in left field for the Braves, the local little league majors team. Jack’s biggest problem is thinking of something clever and witty to say to the Braves’ cute shortstop, Katie Bowe. But the team’s bully, also son of one of the coaches, knocks Jack down in practice, starting a chain of events that could have tragic consequences: “The pitch cuts in toward me, chest high. It’s one of those pitches where you can just tell right away that you’re in trouble. The ball just seems to follow you” (47). Trouble seems to follow Jack after that incident, and after an even bigger episode in a real game, fear and malaise creep into his psyche. The doubts that every competitor must overcome plague Jack: Does he have the courage to face his fears? Can he perform under pressure? Can he shrug off his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and come back stronger than ever? Can he finally not get nervous when Katie Bowe walks into the room? Jack must confront his deepest fears, not lie (too much) to his parents about his situation, find a way to return to left field, and save face with his friends.
I remember what it was like to feel the excitement of baseball season: to collect, trade, and flip baseball cards, to play in little league, to listen to games on a transistor radio, and frankly, to be afraid of the ball. Plunked by Michael Northrop captures the tweener baseball experience with verisimilitude and humor, and I must confess that three students have seen me smiling while reading it and they all want it as soon as I am done. Some of the characters were underdeveloped, particularly the parents; e.g. Mr. Northrop points out two situations in which Dad drinks too much but there is no follow-up, consequence, or effect. However, Jack’s passion for baseball and his obsession with starting in left field are unmistakable and charming, and Plunked by Michael Northrop will make a fine addition to your sports fiction collection.

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