CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 28 . . . . March 25, 2016
As a high school librarian, I am always looking for high interest, low vocabulary novels to entice reluctant readers, particularly boys. For many years, Orca Books has been producing "Orca Sports", a series that targets these particular readers. Jeff Rud, author of two other novels in this series, has written Centerville, the latest in this series, and it does not disappoint. It contains 13 bite-sized chapters that will appeal to even the most wary readers; its depiction of high school basketball is accurate; it has a likeable (and realistic) central character; and it includes a moral dilemma without being too didactic. In short (no basketball pun intended), the book is a real "slam dunk".
Jake Burnett, the novel's narrator, is a high school senior who has been recruited to attend Centerville Prep., a private school that exacts $22,000 from his parents, all to showcase his basketball skills and get him a university scholarship. The promise, however, rings hollow as Jake soon realizes that the basketball program is housed in a public school, and all the athletes are warehoused in a few small houses, all without adult supervision. The adult who should be there, Coach Stone, is a dictator, and he pulls the strings of all the student athletes, hoping to produce a future NBA star, one that could be used as metaphorical bait to lure in future Centerville prospects.
If this sounds a little like the important 1994 Steve James-directed documentary Hoop Dreams well... it is. Homage, allusion, or cultural touchstone, the novel, like the film, shows that the dream of playing professional basketball is only to be attained by the very few. These players are often discarded. Willy Loman-like, they may proclaim "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit!" but sports history does not listen.
Centerville, however, although successful, still has its faults. The author, a high school basketball coach himself, obviously knows basketball, and he has an ear for realistic teen dialogue. Still, the first-person narrated novel at times strikes false notes with its references to Wayans Brothers movies, NBA 2K, "old-school" Jay-Z songs, and what the author thinks is contemporary slang: "sick" and the like. As well, it would be nice for a Canadian author to set his novel in Canada. The work begins by making reference to "single-A schools", which makes one think that the novel is set in Ontario where inter-school competition goes from single-A to quadruple-A, depending on the size of the school, but then we have references to "the State board of Education." Where, one may ask, is the novel set?
Despite my quibbles, I can still claim that Jeff Rud has written an excellent novel that depicts teens in crisis, trapped by an unscrupulous adult who feeds off unrealistic expectations. For teens who want a fast-paced story with a touch of a moral, Centerville will suit them exactly.
Adam C. Hunt is a teacher-librarian at Centennial Secondary School in Belleville, ON. He does not play basketball.
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