CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 13. . . .December 2, 2016
The Starting Eleven.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer & Co., 2016.
216 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4594-1132-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4594-1133-3 (epub).
Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.
Review by Karen Rankin.
“Hold up a minute. I invited someone out and it looks like he’s arrived.” [Coach] Trevor jogged away.
William flicked his chin at the sidelines. “What’s this about inviting a player out? Isn’t it too late in the season to add guys?”
“It would be sweet to have a sub,” Kenneth said. “Then we could get Luca’s useless and pathetic butt off the field.”
Luca looked around at his teammates. “Who told him I was useless and pathetic? That was a secret.” He pretended to wipe away a tear.
On the sidelines, Trevor shook hands with a tall man, a little heavy, with a bit of a stomach and really thick black eyebrows. He wore a long, pale blue shirt with buttons down the front and no collar. Next to him stood a small, thin woman with long black hair in a single braid down her back. Two other men stood to the side. They were more athletic-looking, both wearing track pants and sweatshirts. One of them caught Cody’s attention because he wore a yellow hoodie with the Lions crest on the front.
A kid stepped forward and shook Trevor’s hand. He wore a blue track suit, with three black stripes down the side – and he wore soccer cleats. He and Trevor ran back to the field.
“Listen up,” Trevor said, as he and the kid approached. “Let me introduce Mustafa.”
“It’s Stafa. Only my mom – and grandma – call me that,” the boy said.
Up close, he looked a little like the man with the thick eyebrows. But his face was more delicate and thin, like the woman’s. Cody figured he was their son.
“We’ll stick with Stafa then.” Trevor laughed. “Stafa plays for the Lions team in the Premier league, in the twelve-year-old division. You may recognize the fellow on the sidelines, with the yellow hoodie. That’s Benji, Stafa’s coach, and next to him is Ed, his assistant coach. Benji thought it might be a good experience for Stafa to play with us. I thought we’d all love to have a sub, so I invited him out for the practice.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Stafa said. “Our game didn’t start on time.”
“You’re sure you aren’t tired?” Trevor said.
Stafa shrugged. “The other team sucked. It was 5 - 0 by half-time. I stopped running after ten minutes. I’m good.”
Premier was a league up from Major, but Cody was surprised by Stafa’s confidence. Stafa was a year younger than Cody but he didn’t act like it.
“We’re allowed to add players this late in the season?” Kenneth said.
“We’re allowed to add up to two players for the last five games,” Trevor explained. “But only if they’re already playing for a Lions team. And they have to be either moving up a division or, as in this case, be younger than the team they’re moving to.”
“What position do you play?” Paulo asked.
Cody felt a tug in his stomach. The question hung in the air.
"Striker," Stafa said simply. “I’ve always been a striker.”
Striker? That was Cody’s position. Cody looked down at the ground and kicked at a piece of dirt. Was Trevor trying to tell him something?
After moving to be close to the hospital for Cody’s cancer treatments, Cody, 13 and now cancer free, is finally comfortable with his new friends, almost all of whom are on the Lions soccer team, and he is relishing his position as striker. But with the playoffs approaching, Cody’s position is threatened by another newcomer. And when the season ends, Paulo, one of Cody’s closest new friends, will leave to live in Brazil. Not only that, the whole team may be broken up when some of the boys, Cody included, are invited to play in the Premier League which, should they accept, would mean they’d no longer have time for the Lions. Furthermore, the beginning of high school – and having to meet another bunch of new kids – is fast approaching when Cody’s parents say they’ll move back to his old home town if that’s what he’d prefer. Cody would like to talk things over with Mandy, a girl he’d developed a good relationship with over soccer and a shared interest in the environment (in The Beautiful Game, the second in Skuy’s soccer trilogy), but for some reason, she seems to be giving him the brush-off. Cody has to decide what’s best for him, figure out why Mandy isn’t talking to him, and ultimately deal with the same bullies he’s had to face ever since his hair fell out when he was undergoing cancer treatments.
Cody is a relatively sensitive and thoughtful young man. For instance, he is concerned for the well-being of one of the boys who has bullied him in the past, but who seems to be a victim of bullying himself. Additionally, Cody worries about a rift in the friendship between Kenneth and Luca, two boys who usually carry on a comic banter but have stopped speaking to each other as a result of the secretive way the Premier team is being put together. So, when Cody quickly concludes, with little to no supporting evidence, that Mandy is behaving strangely because she’s upset about Paulo going to Brazil, it doesn’t feel entirely credible, but rather, more like plot manipulation. Then, when he finds out that Mandy is actually upset because her mother has been hospitalized with depression, he is wonderfully informative and supportive - to a point that again pushes credibility. However, Cody is an only child who has already gone through a lot. And, as the narrator notes:
It occurred to Cody that he’d been thinking about a lot of things other than soccer this season. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
Skuy’s story about Cody encompasses soccer, racism, mental illness, the meaning of friendship, bullying - including parents trying to intimidate referees - and more. With some well-described, exciting moments during games, The Starting Eleven covers a lot of ground at a good pace both on and off the soccer pitch.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children's stories.
on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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