Children’s books about Rugby League generally feature young male protagonists. They are often aimed at reluctant readers and, in recent times, have highlighted aspects of Indigenous culture. Positive messages about education and reading may sneak into the books’ pages, too.
Here’s a round-up of single titles (italicised below) and book series (bolded below), written by Australian authors, that feature Rugby League. (Titles are listed in reverse chronological order; newer publications will be more readily available.)
Note: newly published titles will be added to this post on an occasional basis. Latest update: October 2022.
The First Tackle by Rikki-Lee Arnold (2022). Ages 9+, 136pp.
Dani Murphy is ten years old and dreams of playing rugby league. Her big brother plays, her little brothers play, but she is not allowed to. Her grandmother tells her, ‘girls don’t play rugby league. It’s too rough and dangerous. You can watch it, but you cannot play.’
Broncos-supporting Dani is not to be deterred, especially when she spies a slightly older girl playing for a local team. Clearly, girls can play league. A subsequent internet search tells her that not only can they play in local teams, they can also play for the Maroons (Queensland’s state team) and even represent Australia.
Dani tries several strategies to convince her family to let her play. After several failed attempts, her big brother Jimmy devises a successful plan: he contrives to have their father and grandmother watch Dani train with the local Under-11s. Seeing Dani’s skill and passion on the field leads to a change of heart from the older family members. Although Dani’s safety is still a priority, her father admits that, while he is afraid of her brothers being hurt, that doesn’t stop him letting them play. ‘We shouldn’t treat you any differently just because you’re a girl and we’re sorry it took us a while to understand that.’ Together, the family devise a plan that will allow Dani to pursue her dream.
The First Tackle, by sports journalist Rikki-Lee Arnold, is a welcome addition to league-themed children’s books. Dani is a determined girl with an inquisitive nature who is emboldened by her older brother’s advice to ‘walk tall, stand proud’. Arnold weaves in themes of friendship and diversity, and highlights Dani’s love of reading. Prominent players, both women and men, are named in the book and it also includes playing tips such as correct tackling technique.
- Want more? See Wombat Books website for teachers’ notes.
Matty’s Comeback by Anita Heiss (2016). Ages 8–12, 80 pp.
Ten-year-old Koori kid Matty is a mad Rabbitohs fan (as are his mum, dad and brother). Matty basically knows everything there is to know about the Bunnies. It’s not a passion shared by his sister, Nita. She’s into reading. (She’s also a Kangatarian – she eats no meat, except kangaroo, ‘on ethical and environmental grounds’).
Matty is passionate about his local junior club, but he breaks his arm while bike riding and can’t play in the grand final. Enter bookworm Nita! She borrows a copy of Ray Warren’s The Voice for her demoralised brother and suggests that he commentate the final instead – that way, he can still be involved in the action. An inspired idea from the family ‘reader’.
Author Anita Heiss, a Wiradjuri woman, incorporates contemporary and Indigenous slang (e.g. ‘whatevs’, ‘tomoz’, ‘deadly’ and ‘didge’) into the story, along with aspects of Aboriginal history and culture (e.g. an Indigenous perspective on the Bicentenary, the singing of the national anthem in an Aboriginal language at Matty’s school and Greg Inglis’s ‘goanna move’ when celebrating a try).
- Want more? See Scholastic Australia’s website and teachers’ notes, and Anita Heiss’s website.
Cannily, Cannily by Simon French (1981, re-published 2012). Ages 10–12+*, 20 pp.
Eleven-year-old Trevor is the son of fruit pickers, constantly on the move. The family lives out of a Kombi van with a caravan and annexe attached. As the novel begins, Trevor and his mum and dad arrive in a new town – meaning another new school for Trevor. But this time, Trevor’s dad is taking on work as a bricklayer and Trevor is the only new kid at the school; there are no other fruit pickers’ kids for company. His new class teacher and footy coach, Mr Fuller, is a bully. Mr Fuller is aggressive, mean-spirited, cruel even.
Trevor observes his new world from a distance, trying to make sense of it, trying to fit in, but aware that he’s giving up something essential in himself when he seeks to accommodate the nature and culture of the small town. School and the footy team form the scaffold on which the story is hung; at its heart is a family with horizons much wider than the communities in which they linger temporarily. Cannily, Cannily, written by primary school teacher Simon French, is also about place and identity – and about home. It was originally published over 30 years ago and was commended in the 1982 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards. Its exploration of the interior world of a displaced pre-adolescent boy warrants a new generation of readers.
* The publisher’s age recommendation for this book is 8+, but I think Simon French’s approach to issues of identity, self-discovery, emotional isolation and relationships requires a slightly more mature readership.
- Want more? See the Walker Books Australia website. (This link provides access to classroom ideas – for Years 5–7 – and to the first two chapters of the book.)
The Flea Thing by Brian Falkner (2007). Ages 9+, 120 pp.
Daniel is twelve years old and he has a special talent – he can slow down time for himself while it continues at normal pace for everyone else. His secret talent provides him with opportunities to create winning moves on the footy field which, in turn, earn him a place in the New Zealand Warriors NRL team.
Daniel trains hard, plays in an NRL grand final, scores the winning try and then … he quits. With the benefit of wise guidance from an older (i.e. twenty-something) player, Henry Knight, Daniel comes to understand that the present is the only time he’s going to get to be a kid. He goes back to playing junior footy – and he catches up with his much-neglected friends.
The Flea Thing is written by Brian Falkner – an Auckland-born and raised, Gold Coast resident. Falkner’s website includes access to the opening chapter of The Flea Thing (originally published in New Zealand in 2003 as Henry & the Flea).
- Want more? See the Walker Books Australia website and Brian Falkner’s author site.
Leaper Lane by Stephen Measday and Paul Sironen (2006). Ages 10+, 206 pp.
Stephen Measday, author of over a dozen children’s and young adult novels, teamed up with former Balmain Tigers, NSW and Australian second rower Paul Sironen to create the code-transition tale of Jack Lane. Jack’s parents have separated and he has moved from Melbourne to Sydney with his mum. In the southern capital he (wisely!) barracked for Carlton. Now in Sydney, he’s got to learn a whole new code of football. (He clearly didn’t want to transfer his allegiances to support the Sydney Swans, and the book was written a few years prior to the establishment of the Greater Western Sydney AFL team.)
The story follows eleven-year-old Jack’s dedication to learning the rules of Rugby League and his perseverance with training drills. He gradually hones his skills, makes the local Wanderers team, and – by transferring his Aussie Rules marking ability to the new code – earns the nickname ‘Leaper’. Jack takes part in a kicking competition on The Footy Show (his kicking game is another legacy of his Aussie Rules training) and he is picked for the junior NSW team to play the curtain raiser at State of Origin games. He also manages to wangle an opportunity for his mum and dad to get back together again.
Jack’s transition to, and success in, a new football code is relatively straightforward, and the future for his parents seems headed for a neat, ‘happily ever after’ outcome. A distinctive element in the story is the friendship that develops between Jack and Tania Brookes (one of Jack’s classmates and a Rugby League player). Tania plays in the Wanderers team and, like Jack, is selected for the junior state team – both teams are mixed gender.
- Want more? Leaper Lane was published by the now defunct Jane Curry Publishing. Copies of the book are available in libraries. For specific locations, see Trove Australia.
Across the Line by Penny Garnsworthy (2006). Ages 9+, 59 pp.
After an accident on the footy field, Year 8 student Casey wakes up in an alternate reality. Casey’s new world is peopled by familiar family members, teachers and friends, but their personalities and his relationships with them take on new guises.
Casey’s science teacher, Mr Chiang, introduces his young student to quantum physics and Casey risks exposing his confusing situation. Mr Chiang calls in the assistance of a university professor and, between the three of them, they develop the hypothesis that Casey might have a double in another universe. By re-creating the circumstances of the first ‘crossing over’, Casey is able to swap places with his original self while still scoring the winning try for his Vikings footy team.
- Want more? See Penny Garnsworthy’s website. Across the Line appears to be out of print, but Trove Australia lists libraries that hold copies.
In Book 1, Hat-Trick Teddy, Teddy’s junior team, the Menangle Meerkats, folds when their home ground becomes unusable and Teddy joins archrivals, the Camden Reds. His footy skills and his attitude impress the scouts and he’s soon chosen to represent his region. In Book 2, Red vs Blue, a new Camden team is created and Teddy reunites with some of his friends from his Meerkats days.
Teddy by James Tedesco (text) and Heath McKenzie (illus.) (2021). Ages 10+.
Sydney Roosters fullback, and New South Wales and Australian representative player, James Tedesco draws on his junior football days in the Menangle and Camden district for this series featuring Year 7 boy ‘Teddy’ (Tedesco’s nickname).
Each chapter in the books closes with a breakout box offering ‘Teddy’s Tips’. These range from football-related ideas (e.g. ‘run at space, not players’) to more general life tips (e.g. ‘don’t bottle things up’). The storylines also incorporate suggestions on dealing with anxiety, distinct types of secrets, and the inevitability of changing friendships.
Tedesco’s Italian heritage comes to the fore – especially in the food eaten by his family – and there are also characters with Lebanese, Islander and Aboriginal heritage. Red vs Blue includes one female player and a boy with a prosthetic foot.
Different font sizes break up the text in this book series, as do the inclusion of text messages and Heath Mackenzie’s illustrations.
- Want more? See Pan Macmillan’s website.
Billy Slater by Patrick Loughlin and Billy Slater (2014). Ages 8+.
Sydney-based teacher and Manly Sea Eagles supporter Patrick Loughlin joined forces with Melbourne Storm’s Billy Slater to create the eponymous Billy Slater series. The series is based around the West Hill Ravens Under 11s footy team, and a different junior player features as the main character in each book.
The team comprises players from a range of ethnic backgrounds; some of the players are Corey Wilson, Tai Nguyen, Ahmed Azzi, Lucas Popovic, Ravi Rangarajan and Junior Taafuli. The storylines are realistic and acknowledge varied emotions including fear, self-doubt, frustration and anger. Slater’s mentoring tips are woven into the narrative (Slater appears periodically as a visiting mentor for the West Hill Ravens), and tips are also included in a factual format at the end of each book.
The four titles in this series are each about 120 pages in length. At the time of publication, Random House (now part of the merged Penguin Random House Australia) recommended a reading age of 9+, but the books are also suitable for slightly younger readers. The print is widely spaced and Nahum Ziersch’s illustrations break up the text at regular intervals. There are duel underlying messages in the series: to have fun playing footy and to acknowledge your feelings. As Slater puts it in his introduction, it’s ‘important to share your feelings with others around you – especially your family – as they are often the best people to help you out’.
- Want more? See the Penguin Random House Australia website and Slater’s personal website.
Deadly D and Justice Jones by Dave Hartley and Scott Prince (2013–2015). Ages 9+.
There are three books (to date), ranging from 120 to 200 pages in length, in Dave Hartley and Scott Prince’s Deadly D and Justice Jones series. Dave Hartley is a Barunggam man and is currently a deputy principal at Queensland’s Coomera Springs State School. Scott Prince is a Kalkadoon man and a former player with Wests Tigers and with all three Queensland NRL teams.
The self-declared rationale for this series is ‘to engage reluctant readers using rugby league as the “hook”.’ The series opens with the main character, Dylan Conlan, moving with his mother from Mount Isa to Brisbane. (Dylan’s dad is dead.) Dylan is a Murri kid from the Kalkadoon mob; he has the slightly unsettling tendency of turning into a super strength ‘man-creature’ whenever he gets angry. This power causes his Kiwi mate, Justice Jones, to nickname Dylan ‘Deadly D’. Armed with his superpower, Dylan gets a spot on the Brisbane Broncos NRL team where – naturally – he stars.
The first book in the series, Making the Team, mentions Waitangi Day and the Apology to the Stolen Generations – the significance of ‘culture’ to both Dylan and Justice Jones is unmissable. Throughout the books, there is plenty of positive reinforcement about the value of education.
- Want more? See Magabala Books website and the accompanying teachers’ notes. You’ll find more about Scott Prince on the Deadly Choices website, and there are details of some of his current ambassador roles at the ARTIE Academy.
Rocket Launcher: A Rugby League Adventure for Fans by Michael Westlake and Trevor Gillmeister (2012). Ages 9+.
Michael Westlake is a long-time sports journalist and has been a ghost writer for several Rugby League players including Mal Meninga, Glenn Lazarus and Trevor Gillmeister. In the Rocket Launcher series, Westlake teamed up with former NRL, Queensland and Australian player, and current Gold Coast Titans assistant coach, Gillmeister to create sixteen separately published books.
The text in each book is identical with the exception of the names of players and individual team references – these are changed to match each of the sixteen NRL clubs. The series uses the names of players who were ‘current’ in 2012. The Canberra Raiders title, for instance, features Terry Campese, David Shillington and Josh Dugan, among others. This approach dates quickly given the propensity of League players to move overseas, change clubs, or commit a range of contract-ending misdemeanours.
The replicated storyline is fast paced and includes plenty of humour and League terminology. Interspersed throughout the 200+ pages of each book is a succession of break out boxes, written by Gillmeister, with tips on playing League. The Rocket Launcher series is introduced by former Deputy Prime Minister (and avid Brisbane Broncos fan) Wayne Swan who encourages readers to ‘Enjoy playing, enjoy reading and enjoy rugby league’.
- Want more? The Rocket Launcher series appears to be out of print. Copies are held in various Queensland libraries. For some specific locations, see Trove Australia.
League of Legends by Michael Panckridge and Laurie Daley (2006–2008). Ages 10+.
Michael Panckridge’s writing is ‘inspired by his passion for sport’ and his ‘desire to get reluctant readers engaged in books’. In League of Legends, Panckridge combines with Laurie Daley, the former Canberra Raiders five-eighth, NSW and Australian representative player, and current NSW State of Origin coach. The three titles in this series are each just under 200 pages in length. All begin with a diagram of field positions and they also include a glossary of Rugby League terms, along with tips from Daley.
Each story has a mystery at its heart and the high school-aged characters employ detective skills to uncover nefarious criminal activity.
- Want more? See Michael Panckridge’s website and the Harper Collins site.
If you are aware of any recent titles that I’ve overlooked, please use the comments section to let me know.
LINKS AND SOURCES
- Header image: By Angry mob mulls options [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
- All titles discussed in this blog post were sighted at the National Library of Australia with the exception of The First Tackle.
- Some titles were excluded from this round-up of Rugby League-themed books for children as they are quite dated and/or no longer readily available. Some school and public libraries may still hold copies. I have created an extended list of League-themed titles for children on the Trove Australia website; you can view the list here.
- Reading Time, the journal of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, has reviewed some of the titles mentioned above. You can find the reviews here.
- Ray Warren’s The Voice: My Story is published by Nero, an imprint of Black Inc. Books.