Guide to Juvenile Baseball Books: B

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Clever concept personifies the "Curse" and makes nice use of the magical-realist Big Game motif. If you can stand to read yet another fiction about the Red Sox.

The title doesn't refer to Chicago at all, but to neophyte pitcher Gil Foster and his catcher pal Jigger Ruthers, who make their way onto the nine and into the hearts of Hillfields School. Barbour, a prolific sport-juvenile author, foregoes gee-whiz heroics for gentle, drawn-out evocations of school friendships. The result is not exactly A Separate Peace, but it's something different from (and at times more tedious than) the work of his pulpier contemporaries.

And she ends up learning a lot about herself and about life in the process. The book is skillfully written: for the first two dozen pages or so, we don't know the gender of the narrator (and some readers will assume the narrator is male, though not, I admit, if they've already read my plot summary). Later, it seems as if the narrator will be drawn away from baseball altogether by the pressures of gender conventions. But her essential nature reasserts itself, and the book closes with a strong statement in favor of letting kids' talents and energies have their own heads.

A notably static version of this old formula. Bee's narrative is laden with extensive discussions of baseball tactics, slowed some more by a tendency to spend dozens of pages in the contemplation of fictional baseball schedules, and further slowed by an almost total lack of drama. Hero Chip Hilton overcomes adversity with the help of his mom's support and good cooking; his father Big Chip, who had "dreamed of a career in ceramics," was cut off in his prime when a container-load of ware fell on his head.

The first baseball title in an extensive series of sport juveniles by Bee, the celebrated basketball coach. In 1998, this title was republished in an edition "updated" by Randall and Cynthia Bee Farley (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman). This is an evangelical publishing house, but their Bee editions are secular in appearance, touting each as a "positive-themed tale of human relationships" but not specifically as Christian. In any event, the original Bee stories are secular, almost without cultural or social references. The 1998 "updating" does a little more polishing, replacing sturdy old phrases ("solar plexus") with blander words ("stomach"), and removing one use of the word "colored" for a black character (who loses all ethnicity in the process). The 1998 edition also consistently calls the author "Coach Clair Bee," as if to underscore his creds and possibly, for some readers, his gender.

The "updated" text is a fascinating gauge of how much American culture had changed in the intervening half-century. Baseball is still baseball, but the idea of a star high-school ballplayer spending his summer "handlin' steel without gloves" while the surrounding community lives and dies with the fortunes of the factory team seems almost as far-fetched now as the idea of a globally dominant American steel industry. Yet the update presents the 1949 situation as routine in 1998, mixing references to Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio with remarks like "Maybe we've got an Orel Hershiser right here in the plant!"

Rather blander than even its mild precursors in the series.

Despite nostalgia for the sandlot, the glamor of "real" organized sport is eventually the big winner in this picture book, part of a series that helps kids deal with novel and stressful situations.

Somewhat mixed messages here, as if the Bears franchise has become so big that it no longer matters what they say and do.

This picture book is an interesting entry in the growing list of juvenile books that make Joe Jackson into a sort of folkloric hero. (See also Gutman.) Payne's illustrations are memorable, capturing a gentle, heroic Jackson in loving detail.

Nice illustrations accompany a somewhat idiosyncratic text, a pilot for a series that creates a somewhat fey mythology. This mythology includes three children with an enchanted baseball, their cross-dressing, ballplaying mom, and ghostly foglike apparitions; there's a sense in which Barnstormers is trying to be the Lemony Snicket of baseball fiction. The series proceeded to Louisville for Game 2: The River City (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007) and then to Chicago for Game 3: The Windy City (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008) while remaining equally self-referential and opaque. The series title suddenly changed to Sluggers in 2009 for the paperbacks and for subsequent volumes, for reasons just as unclear as anything else to do with the books.

A standard plot, interesting for its concern with baseball economics. Bishop goes into great detail about his hero's contract problems. The book extolls thrift and presents the confiscatory tax policies of the Truman years with horror. Fifty years later, no juvenile novel would expect us to identify with the financial ambitions of a major leaguer.

Fairly plodding and earnest Young Adult fiction, well-isolated from any social or political concerns. The "big game" is, mercifully, not any particular contest but the larger struggle for the good of the team and the long-term development of its players, which wins out over the immediate needs of the protagonist's father.

Suffers from aimlessness and a hazily-realized setting: a New England island community called Pirates' Island where the teams are called Yankees and Dodgers because a mainland town has already taken the name "Pirates," -- a situation that the author can't quite seem to make compelling.

Early in this slim juvenile, autochthony is the major theme, as we follow the preparation of the Clipper Bay Clippers, namesakes of an old New England coastal village, for a season of games against the interloping Timberville Campers. The Clipper Bay outfit are mostly old Yankees, though they feature a shortstop named Jim Turtle, a Native American, who captains their squad, and their eventual no-hit pitcher is clearly supposed to be Jewish. Not much is made, in the long run, of this rudimentary multiculturalism; the plot becomes a desultory mix of mild adventures and vaguely-sketched game action.

Interesting because the youth-league Cubs in this tale get no closer to the brass ring than the real-life major-league Cubs; the whole theme of the book is how to cope with perpetual losing.

Briskly plotted Young Adult novel written in breathless gee-whiz prose. Interesting for the setting of its opening scenes in a military ballfield in Vietnam. One of several YA baseball fictions by Bowen.

The mildest of mysteries. Read more about Shortstop Shadow at lection.

Quite literally; the pitcher prints up the specs for a star player on cardstock, and the next day, the star materializes on the field. A brief lesson in how it's more fun to lose for real than achieve a kind of Photoshopped victory.

Only the third quarter of this magnificent Young Adult novel is centrally about baseball, but it is one of the loveliest pieces of baseball fiction ever done. Don't read the third quarter separately, though; it draws its resonance from the texture of the whole novel.

Freddy is distinctly an acquired taste, along with his mildly daft mixed community of people and talking animals. The English would call the whole effect "twee," a mix of preciousness, self-satisfaction, and self-conscious joviality. Yet while I don't care for Freddy overall, the baseball in this series entry is clever enough, imagining a game played by six-legged beetle-like aliens, elephants who bat with their trunks, and ostrich shortstops.

A juvenile saga of academic eligibility that is nicely illustrated and makes its points cleanly. Part of Brown's immensely popular juvenile aardvark series.

Intricately plotted junior reader, with lively pictures. Distantly recalls the plot motif of Lloyd Biggle's story "Who's On First."