Images from Baseball for Middle School Readers

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta.

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane.

I’m not really a sports fan, but if I were going to be a sports fan, I’d probably pick baseball. There’s something special about baseball books. They get all metaphorical and philosophical on you, and yet they’re still tied to a physical game. It’s fun, and it’s poetic, and it’s baseball details —all at the same time.

In The Girl Who Threw Butterflies the conceit is that life and relationships are like a knuckleball pitch, aka a butterfly pitch or a floater.

“The knuckleball wasn’t just a pitch. It was an attitude toward life. It was a way of being in the world. It was a philosophy. “You don’t aim a butterfly,” her father used to say. “You release it.” Each pitch had a life of its own. It wasn’t about control, it wasn’t about muscle. Each floating and fluttering pitch was a little miracle. It was all about surprise. To her, though she would never say so, every knuckleball she threw seemed like a living thing, each of them full of impish high spirits.”

Molly, the central character in this novel, is dealing with the recent death of her father and with the growing pains associated with being thirteen and the only child of a grieving mother. Molly’s relationship with her mother is sort of like pitching in a baseball game; Molly releases bits of information to her mother, and sometimes the pitch is perfectly controlled and other times it goes wild and starts a huge argument. Molly is quite interested in communication, in the sign language that coaches use to signal their players, in the codes that scorekeepers use to score a baseball game, in the nonverbal cues that define her relationship with her mom and with friends. The book is full of these analogies and metaphors, and if I had time I would go back and re-read it just to enjoy the richness of the story and the parallelsbetween the game of baseball and the game of life.

Mudville, the other baseball book that I read, has its own baseball magic going on. As Molly is missing her father, Roy the protagonist and narrator in Mudville is missing his mother. She left five years and hasn’t returned to Moundville, the town where Roy lives with his dad. And Sturgis, Roy’s foster brother and the other central character in the book, is missing father and mother. However, the real tragedy in Moundville, nicknamed Mudville for good reason, is that it’s been raining for twenty-two years, every day, ever since the Moundville baseball team had its game with arch-rival Sinister Bend called because rain in the final inning. Twenty-two years ago when Roy’s dad was a player on the Moundville team. Now Roy’s father rainproofs house for a living, and SInister Bend has been swept away by a flood. And Roy dreams of becoming a Major League catcher.

Mudville is more of a boys’ book, a little less philosophical but no less poetic and atmospheric than The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. It’s less about communication and more about possibilities, about “what-if”. What if it rained every day for twenty-two years? What if the rain suddenly stopped? What if there were a curse on the town that caused the rain? What if there wasn’t? What if the Cubs won the World Series? What if Moundville were able to put a baseball team together and win against the Sinister Bend, against all odds? What if the best pitcher on the Moundville team deserted to the opposing team?

Both of these books will appeal to baseball fans, but also to anyone who enjoys sports metaphors and a touch of magical realism. They would be best for seventh and eighth graders, the upper end of the Middle Grade Fiction category for the Cybils competition. If I were a librarian and I managed to sell one of these two to a reader who enjoyed it, I’d immediately put the other book in that reader’s hands, along with James Preller’s Six Innings and perhaps Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park, both from last year.

5 thoughts on “Images from Baseball for Middle School Readers

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  5. There seems to be a lot more fiction about baseball than any other sport– and that’s not what the students seem to want. I wish there were a lot more basketball and football books!

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