Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week features Fantasy League by Mike Lupica.
12-year-old Charlie is a fantasy football guru. He may be just a bench warmer for his school’s football team, but when it comes to knowing and loving the game, he’s first-string. He even becomes a celebrity when his podcast gets noticed by a sports radio host, who plays Charlie’s fantasy picks for all of Los Angeles to hear. Soon Charlie befriends the elderly owner of the L.A. Bulldogs — a fictional NFL team — and convinces him to take a chance on an aging quarterback. After that, watch out . . . it’s press conferences and national fame as Charlie becomes a media curiosity and source of conflict for the Bulldogs general manager, whose job Charlie seems to have taken. It’s all a bit much for a kid just trying to stay on top of his grades and maintain his friendship with his verbal sparring partner, Anna.
I’m a huge sports fan and love reading books where sport plays a major role. American football is not that close to the top of my list of favourite sports, we just don’t get to watch enough of it in the UK for it to earn such a place, but it’s one that I find myself learning about increasingly often. My a bit better than basic knowledge of the game was certainly enough for me to follow this book with ease and really enjoy it.
The plot of this book errs towards the real life fantasy in the best possible way. Charlie, the main character, is football obsessed – he plays for his school team, plays lots of fantasy football and analyses the game down to teeniest details. Its this hyperfocus that makes him special – he sees things in the game that others simply don’t spot, and draws predictions from them that may seem outlandish initially but rarely fail to come true. This is how he ends up advising his beloved, struggling, local NFL team – definitely the stuff that dreams are made of.
There’s so much to love about this book, the plot is gripping to the point that I found myself holding my breath a couple of times when games of football were drawing towards a close. The central characters are also all very endearing – I could easily have read a book twice as long as this one and not even begun to get bored of them. Charlie himself is fascinating, particularly this way he has of analysing football – I think he’s a great advertisement for a love of statistics! His best friend Anna, well I’d have liked to have seen her a little more – she’s described early on as being the only one who understands and loves football the way that Charlie does and as a sports loving girl I really loved her. By the end of the book I understood why she wasn’t featured as strongly as I’d have liked her to have been, and I had to remind myself that it was Charlie’s book after all. The elderly owner of the L.A. Bulldogs, Mr Warren, was a wonderful character, I could feel his warmth spring off the page.
This is such a great story. It carries a number of messages, all seamlessly threaded through, and as such would provide some great discussion opportunities. I think this book will be loved by many, it’ll be an instant sell to sports mad tweens but I think far more will enjoy it if they’re just persuaded to pick it up and start reading.
Fantasy League is published by Philomel/Penguin in the USA from 16th September 2014. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.