Today, I’ll review two football-themed books, Game Changer by Kirk Cousins and Snap Decision by Nathan Whitaker. As serendipity would have it, reading the books together allowed me to enjoy them more.
I had no idea about “playbook” or “scout team,” so I was glad I read Game Changer first. Cousins does a great job of explaining football terms so a newbie can understand, but he gives enough detail to interest football fans. What impressed me most was his first chapter. He describes giving a speech to represent players at an event:
If you enjoy watching his speech, you’ll enjoy the book. Caveat: Cousins is a better speaker than writer, so some of his “life lessons” sections come across as heavy-handed and a bit simplistic. That said, he gives a much-needed message for adolescents (and adults, to be honest) today: Get your priorities straight, don’t expect to have everything handed to you, and work hard. His example of a playbook as a guide for life is well done and easy to follow. As a teenage boy (his target audience), I would love reading about Cousin’s career and get impatient with the sermonizing. Still, I might read at least part of it. As a teenage girl, I would read only if I were a voracious reader (willing to read anything) or enjoyed football. As a parent, I would feel completely comfortable giving this to my child to read. We need more sincere and humble role models like Kirk Cousins.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 gingersnaps
Snap Decision by Nathan Whitaker should have been a five-star book. The book is filled with tidbits about football scouting, professional play, and Florida (I could feel the hot, humid weather as I read the book). Also, the premise is great: an eighth grade boy playing football has to decide between telling the truth about his injured teammate (removing him from eligibility for the rest of the season) or lying (allowing his friend to continue playing the game).
Several compelling narrative arcs never find resolution. Why does it matter that Chase’s mother is friends with a singer? Why bring up his sister’s nightmares when nothing happens as a result? Why constantly refer to his father’s leaving the family when it doesn’t serve an integral part of the plot? Why have an older boy serve as a role model without tying up any of his plot threads? Whitaker gives us rich storytelling, but a well-crafted narrative should show us a purpose for each word written.
Also, in a trend I particularly hate about youth fiction, Whitaker self-consciously includes a superficial nod to diversity. In about five references throughout the entire book, Whitaker uses race as a way to objectify. Unlike gender, in which Megan is shown as a capable player who serves a crucial role on the football team, race is sprinkled in as an afterthought. Two characters are identified twice as second-generation Chinese American, which is described as “different” and “showed on their faces.” (Please tell me that I don’t have to explain why this is not acceptable.) Let me repeat my mantra regarding race in fiction: Do it properly, or don’t do it at all. A white author writing a story about white characters (who are never identified as white) is not a problem. A white author writing a white story about white characters and then only identifying the two non-white characters by race? Not okay. If this was a decision made by editors or a marketing team, it was the wrong decision. If it was Whitaker’s decision, surely as a professional writer he should understand the implications of calling someone terms such as “milk chocolate” as a shorthand to fill a diversity quota (Just ask Naomi Campbell, for starters).
The biggest problem, however, is that the main character never consciously chooses anything. The critical moment of the plot, when Chase has to answer for his friend Tripp’s readiness to return to the game, passes by without any commentary or internal struggle. When it is portrayed as the “snap decision” of the story, we as readers need to believe that Chase could make the wrong choice. Kirkus Reviews has criticized this story as “flat” and “lacking in energy,” and this is why. Even Chase’s final triumph is orchestrated for him by his coach and teammates.
Is this book a story I would let my child read? Absolutely. Does it have a good message? Yes, and it provides a great deal of easy-to-understand information on concussions and the dangers of playing contact sports. Does it have useful and interesting information for a football-crazed child who might be a reluctant reader? Very much, to the point that I (as an uninformed adult) was interested. I will recommend this book to teachers and parents looking for Christian themed fiction for their children and students, but I hope that book two of this series will bring tighter narrative, respectful diversity or none at all, and a protagonist who actively struggles to make good choices. If so, I believe Whitaker’s vast background knowledge will bring readers a unique and fulfilling story.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 gingersnaps
(Review copies provided by Book Look, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing)