The Big Race!
Sylvia McNicoll. Illustrated by Susan Gardos.
Grades 2 - 4 / Ages 7 - 9.
Over behind first base, I saw Robin standing on her hands as easily as if they were her feet. She grinned upside down. She thought I was an easy out.
"Oh, yeah, you stupid Rotten Apple? Just for that, I'm going to line drive the ball right past your nose," I yelled.
Marc gave me a thumbs-up sign. He pitched and I kept my eye on the ball. All my angry feelings went into my swing. CRACK! The ball turned into a bullet heading straight for Robin.
"Don't catch it, don't catch it," I said with each step as I ran. First base -- I didn't dare look Robin's way, just in case. Second base, third base.
Nobody cheered as I dashed across home plate. Maybe Robin had caught the ball after all. I kept my head down because I didn't want to know.
But no one cheered for her, either. Our class was never this quiet! Robin must have missed the ball for once in her life. I looked up."What happened?" I asked. But in a squishy place inside, I knew.
POOR NEIL. Robin Apple is his grade-three rival, and she always seems to come out on top. He can't wait for baseball to start in gym class, since that's his specialty. When Robin's up at bat, Neil instructs his team to move in since "girls can't hit that far." Unfortunately for him, Rotten Apple (as he nicknames her) is also great out on the field. The ball sails over his head and Robin makes a home run. She also catches Neil's high fly hit later in the same game.
The teacher groups Neil and his friend Marc with Robin for a science project. They're each given a snail which they house together in an altered pop bottle. The three decide to race their new pets on a desk, and again Robin wins.
The next time the class plays ball, Neil breaks Robin's nose with his line drive. The teacher instructs the students to go back to the room and work on their snail project while she takes Robin off the field to call the girl's mother. Marc convinces Neil to race the three snails again, but Robin's pet falls off the desk when the boys are momentarily distracted: "In a panic, I made a quick grab for him. It was a quick HARD grab. I felt Curly's shell crack between my fingers." Marc convinces Neil to just put the snail back in the bottle, where it remains motionless.
Neil is racked with guilt, and on his mom's suggestion goes to Robin's house to visit her and take her some batting tokens. However, at the batting cages with Neil, and on the field with the class, Robin has become too afraid of the ball to play well.
Author Sylvia McNicoll (Bringing up Beauty) has created believable characters and an engaging story. Neil is no saint, but we watch him grow. He uses his allowance to buy five tokens, but plans to give only three to Robin. After he sees how terrible she looks and how unhappy she is, "I fingered the three tokens in my hand as I stretched out my arm to give them to her. They didn't seem enough." He digs out the other two.
The book sensitively addresses stereotyping and the issue of competitiveness. The subtle humour and school setting should appeal to young readers of either gender. The print is clear and easy to read, and the realistic pencil illustrations by Susan Gardos greatly enhance the story. The colour cover artwork is particularly catchy.
In the end, Curly the snail survives, and (after the two practice together), Neil is as elated as Robin is when she overcomes her fear:
CLUP! I love the sound of a softball hitting a glove. It's smooth and soft and makes you feel powerful. Especially when the ball's in YOUR glove. Or your friend's.
This title in Scholastic's "Shooting Star" series would be an excellent addition for school, public or home libraries.
A. Edwardsson is in charge of the Children's Department at a branch of the Winnipeg Public Library. She has a Bachelor of Education degree and a Child Care Worker III certification, and is a member of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Authors' Association.
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