Thursday, March 1, 2012

Books We Love: “Plunked” by Michael Northrop

Book Review by Jack Silbert
Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game, blah blah blah. A serious subset of us sports fans spend the entire winter counting down to the only day that matters: When pitchers and catchers report. Baseball fans are a special breed—a bit more obsessive, a bit more nostalgic, a bit more introspective. And if you’ve noticed that the baseball fans in your life have been smiling a bit more recently, have a bit more “spring” in their steps, that’s because spring training is underway.

This year, 8-to-12-year-old baseball fans have even more reason to be happy, with the release of Michael Northrop’s winning novel Plunked. And even though it’s a sports book, it generally avoids the clichés of the genre, and in many ways is a gentle exploration of psyche and emotion.

Which shouldn’t scare anyone off. Baseball is the thinking-person’s game, after all. Fans spend a lot of time inside their own heads, imagining trades, replaying crucial at-bats, contemplating statistics. So it’s only fitting that things really get started here when our protagonist gets hit in the head with a pitched ball.

Now, that’s not a spoiler, don’t worry. You know going in that sixth-grader Jack Mogens is going to take one to the noggin. (The title is Plunked, after all.) As a result, I wonder if kids reading this will be as nervous as I was in the early going. Jack Mogens is such a sweet, friendly kid—we don’t want him to get hit. But we know he will. Is it going to happen at Little League practice? In the batting cage? During the first game? I was antsy each time Jack picked up a bat. (The book seems to follow the Syd Field screenwriting paradigm, so that errant fastball—a.k.a. plot point 1—doesn’t arrive until a third of the way in.)

Before that, Northrop has established Jack’s fear of getting hit. So then the rest of the book delves into a scenario that you don’t need to be a baseball fan to relate to: What happens if the thing you’re afraid of actually takes place? And how do you summon the strength to put yourself in that same situation again?

As for the baseball talk (and there’s a lot of it): The lingo of the game and descriptions of plays all ring true. Northrop obviously isn’t someone who just looked up “baseball” on Wikipedia 20 minutes before starting the book. In fact, he was a baseball editor at Sports Illustrated Kids for five years. Northrop is clearly a fan, writing about fans, for fans. And yet it never gets too wonky—you don’t have to be a seasoned Little Leaguer to appreciate Plunked.

This is Northrop’s first middle-grades offering. His first two books, Gentlemenand Trapped,were well-received young-adult titles. But here, Northrop is clearly at ease with the language and feelings of the sixth-grade set. Importantly, Jack is in an elementary school, where sixth graders rule the roost. They behave like little adults, but are still so young in so many ways. Northrop perfectly captures that dichotomy.

In-between all the baseball, we get nice little glimpses of Jack’s world. School-bus and cafeteria politics. The deep loyalty and easy crumbling of young friendships. There’s the requisite super-talented girl on the team, who makes Jack feel kind of funny inside even if he can’t really understand it. There are parents who don’t get along all the time. (Jack knows how they’re doing by how far apart they sit on the couch when watching TV.) And there’s that pervasive sense that every event is super-important and charged with drama.

Should I say something less than glowing about Plunked? OK, if you’re twisting my arm. I’m not sure how I feel about having a mean-kid character nicknamed “Malfoy.” Sure, it’s a nice tip of the (baseball) cap to the still-reigning champ of kids’ literature. But saying that he acts and even looks like Malfoy—with a mean father to boot—it’s too easy to picture him, and that feels a bit like shorthand.

A minor complaint, though, about what is really a very nice piece of work. And now is the perfect time to read it. Opening Day is still more than a month away, after all.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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