Football in Children’s Fiction
It’s only the early days of the World Cup, but already I’m struggling with the constant bee swarm sound of the vuvuzelas, infusing my every waking moment and beginning to permeate my dreams. It reminds me of a dimly remembered episode of The Tomorrow People, from my childhood, where one of the gang was learning to play the drums (with most other kids in town). It turned out that, when they beat out the same rhythm in unison, it would allow some evil alien to return to take over the world.
In the same way, perhaps the dreadful droning is intended to bring the Krun or the Andromedans or some other aliens down to Earth, visiting South Africa District 9 style, or maybe it’s just an alien conspiracy to send everyone in the world mad so they can more easily takeover. I digress…
The Johnny Mackintosh stories may be about space and aliens, but they’re also firmly rooted in football. Johnny himself lives and breathes footy, and I think it’s important he plays a match in every book. When he time travels in the first book, he even works out what day it is by seeing which football match is on the TV. I’m certain that, if the Spirit of London is home on Earth at the moment, he’ll be watching the games and becoming just as exasperated by the incessant vuvuzelas horns as I am. You could say, what Quidditch is to Harry Potter, football is to Johnny Mackintosh.
I played to a reasonable standard growing up, always captain of school and college and club teams. For me, the football in the books helps ground Johnny’s life on Earth, giving readers something they can relate to. Why does he get dropped from the school team? Why do they always seem to train on cold, wet evenings on exposed playing fields? And isn’t it really unfair Johnny has to run all the way back to the changing rooms to collect the half-time orange segments that no school football match would be without?
I worked really hard to make the description of the actual play within the books both realistic, and even useful for readers wanting to improve their play. But there’s another reason why football is in the books – it’s a lure to draw in the so-called “reluctant readers” into the wonders of the literary world. If people can read, relate to and be excited by my descriptions of playing for the school team, they’ll hopefully start to read other books too.
When I was growing up, as well as watching The Tomorrow People I devoured books and comics – of the latter I remember Tiger and Scorcher and its pure football off-shoot, Roy of the Rovers. There were great stories, say about “Billy’s Boots”, that carelessly seemed to get lost at the start of every week, only to be salvaged just in time for young Billy to return to form and score the winning goal. Of course there was also the nonfiction Shoot!, including its classic weekly, “You are the ref” quiz.
Now, with the World Cup upon us, it’s a great time to use football to get kids (and we should remember girls are into football almost as much as boys nowadays) into reading. I hope that the Johnny Mackintosh stories will be one way of doing this, but of course there are other books out there that have football-related themes, so I thought I’d survey them here in case other titles catch your eye.
As a rule, the football-only titles are for younger readers (probably ages around 7-9). As the readership rises, the books still have football, but are about other things as well.
Exposure – I had the pleasure of hearing Mal Peet talk about this at the Cheltenham Literature Festival one year. Otello, a glamorous South American footballer (together with WAG wife Desmerelda) becomes embroiled in a scandal with Shakespearian parallels.
Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London – when Johnny’s abducted by aliens on the day of the County Cup Final, you might think he misses it, especially with all the adventures that follow afterwards. But, if you travel through time, anything’s possible, and he still gets to line up for Castle Dudbury Comprehensive against the posh boys of Colchester Grammar in the big match, with its thrilling conclusion.
Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze – he always thought he was one of the school team’s best players, but Johnny’s been dropped from the school team and is shunned by his teammates. Why it’s happened is a mystery, especially when Johnny’s the set-piece specialist. Watching from the sidelines, it looks as though Castle Dudbury are going out of the cup, but when injuries strike, Johnny has twenty minutes to try to save the day – that’s if his teammates will even pass him the ball.
Keeper – a football story with a South American and supernatural theme, by author Mal Peet (who’s also written Tamar and The Penalty). Thanks to Rhodesy the Bear for the recommendation.
TJ – did spending too much time penning his own football stories mean that Theo Walcott devoted too little to his training and was left behind? I hope not. Aimed at a younger readership than my Johnny Mackintosh stories, TJ and the Hat-Trick and TJ and the Penalty both published in April 2010, with the title character bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Gunner.
If you have other football-related fiction for children or young adults, please leave a comment and I’ll update the master list.