Rugby League-Themed Books for Children

 

book-covers_5_landscapeSeptember – it’s footy finals time!

Earlier this year, I blogged about children’s books featuring Australian Rules  ‒ now it’s time for Rugby League to hit the spotlight. Kids’ books about League generally have young male protagonists, are often aimed at reluctant readers, and sometimes highlight aspects of Indigenous cultures. Positive messages about education and reading may sneak into their pages as well.

Here’s a round-up of single titles (italicised below), book series (bolded below) and educational publications, written by Australian authors and published in the last decade, that feature League. (Titles are listed in reverse chronological order; newer publications will be more readily available.)

SINGLE TITLES

Matty’s Comeback by Anita Heiss (2016). Ages 8–12, 80 pp.
mattys-comebackTen-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).

Cannily, Cannily by Simon French (1981, re-published 2012). Ages 10–12+*, 20 pp.
cannily-cannilyEleven-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.
THE_FLEA_THINGDaniel 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).

Leaper Lane by Stephen Measday and Paul Sironen (2006). Ages 10+, 206 pp.
leaper-lane_nlaStephen 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.
across-the-lineAfter 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.

SERIES

Billy Slater by Patrick Loughlin and Billy Slater (2014). Ages 8+.
try-timeSydney-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’.

Deadly D and Justice Jones by Dave Hartley and Scott Prince (2013–2015). Ages 9+.
deadly-d-and-justice-jone-making-the-teamThere 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.

Rocket Launcher: A Rugby League Adventure for Fans by Michael Westlake and Trevor Gillmeister (2012). Ages 9+.
rocket-launcher_2Michael 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+.
league-of-legends-shielding-the-truthMichael 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.

EDUCATIONAL PUBLICATIONS

League Stars (2015). Ages 5–7.
trent-and-the-bulliesPublished by Macmillan, the League Stars series is written by Suzan Hirsch, an experienced teacher and a lecturer in Boys Education, Literacy, and Education Studies at the Australian Catholic University. The 24 titles in the series are divided into reading levels for Foundation to Year 2 and are shaped around either factual information or a fictional narrative.

The information-based titles focus on themes such as club uniforms and healthy diets, and the titles for Years 1 and 2 include contents pages and indexes. The narrative titles for Foundation use very simple language and repetition; the titles for Years 1 and 2 develop distinct storylines.

  • Want more? Details about the League Stars series can be found on the Macmillan website (under the collective heading ‘Legends of League’).

Footy Fables (2013). Ages 7+.
footy-fablesLike the League Stars series, Footy Fables is published by Macmillan and written by Suzan Hirsch. The book is a compendium of sixteen short stories (one for each NRL club) and is illustrated by former Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs player, and Samoan international, Frank Puletua. (Puletua completed a double degree in Fine Arts and Graphic Design during his NRL-playing career.)

The stories combine humour and excitement with plenty of League jargon thrown in. Hirsch includes references to non-footy-related myths and fables ‒ a bugged statue of the Brisbane Broncos team mascot, for instance, requires the coach to explain the Trojan horse, and the Melbourne Storm scenario sees Cameron Smith and Billy Slater trapped in a Hansel-and-Gretel-like gingerbread house to prevent them playing against the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Footy Fables was published in 2013 and the stories use the names of actual players. Given the rapidity with which players to change clubs, these references date quickly and the stories lose some immediacy and effectiveness. (Ben Barba, for example, has changed clubs twice since being with the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs – the team with which he is linked in the Bulldogs’ story.)

  • Want more? More information on this book is available from Macmillan.

Rugby League Reads (2010–2015, Macmillan; 2016–, NRL). Ages 7+.
rugby-league-reads-magazineFrom 2010 to 2015, Macmillan published the magazine Rugby League Reads. This glossy, full colour magazine is now published directly by the NRL and includes a feature article on every NRL club. One player from each club has been nominated as the team’s ‘Reading Captain’ and is interviewed for the magazine. Each Reading Captain acknowledges the importance of reading in his own life and indicates his personal reading preferences. Nutrition, literacy and indigeneity feature heavily throughout. The magazine is aimed at readers in the 7+ age group, particularly reluctant readers.

ANY MORE?

If you are aware of any recent titles that I’ve overlooked, please use the comments section to let me know.

LINKS AND SOURCES

  • All titles discussed in this blog post were sighted (and very happily read) at the National Library of Australia with the exception of Rugby League Reads (personal copy).
  • 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. (The list includes the only book I found that had a female protagonist, the 1984 publication The Girl Who Loved Football.)
  • 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.
  • the-voiceRay Warren’s The Voice: My Story is published by Nero, an imprint of Black Inc. Books.

 

On Aussie Rules-Themed Books for Children

At 7.20 pm on Thursday, 24 March, the AFL Premiership season will kick off at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. As this new season approaches, I’ve been on the lookout for children’s books about Australian Rules football (also known as Aussie Rules).

The Sherrin Australian Rules football

The Sherrin Australian Rules football

Before I get onto the results of my search, I had best make a disclosure: I am a Carlton supporter, born and bred. I was a junior member of the club in the late 1960s. I knitted my own team jumper (dark navy, 8 ply wool) and, using linen from an old bed sheet that was beyond even my mother’s prodigious mending skills, stitched the club’s CFC logo on the front and a number 2 on the back. When the finals series rolled around (and Carlton always featured prominently in those bygone days), I made my own game day ‘floggers’—a combination of wooden dowelling, strips of crepe paper and ludicrous amounts of sticky tape. I was at the MCG in 1970 when Ted Hopkins led Carlton’s mighty grand final comeback against Collingwood. (With the Blues 44 points in arrears, I made the bold and unjustifiable half-time declaration: ‘it’s all right, we’re going to win’. I failed to comprehend why Carlton fans around me looked murderous.)

Anyway, this blog post is about books for children, not my childhood and teenage memories, so … moving right along.

Aussie Rules-themed children’s books come in a variety of guises. There are ‘readers’ designed for the primary school education market and multi-author series commissioned by publishing houses. There are single-author series and stand-alone fiction titles. And there are picture books. (There are also commercial non-fiction books, and promotional books sponsored by individual clubs, but I am not going to look at those in this post.)

Readers

dreamtime-at-the-gStarting with books for the education market, Indij Readers publishes three titles that feature Australian Rules football: Michael O’Loughlin: Inside the Sydney Swans (series one), All the Questions You Ever Wanted To Ask Adam Goodes (series two), and Dreamtime at the ‘G’ (series three).

I haven’t tracked down a series of readers that focuses purely on Aussie Rules; let me know if you are aware of one. Among Australia’s major education market publishers, Macmillan has an excellent series on Rugby League; Pearson has books about Rugby Union; and Oxford University Press (OUP) favours Soccer (a game I, admittedly irrationally, refuse to call ‘Football’), but Australian Rules offerings are modest. Macmillan, Pearson and OUP each publish one Australian Rules non-fiction title—respectively, Australian Rules, All About AFL and Aussie Rules.

Publisher Series

Save Our Sharks_MetzenthenPenguin’s Aussie Bites and Aussie Nibbles series each include an Australian Rules-themed title. Look out forThe Newtown Tigers by Michael Wagner (Aussie Nibbles) and Save Our Sharks by David Metzenthen (Aussie Bites). Both are suitable for ages 8+.

Author Series

Specky MageeSpecky Magee by Felice Arena and Gary Lyon (Penguin Books Australia) Ages 10+

The eight books in Felice Arena‘s series centre on the travails of Simon “Specky” Magee, ‘an Aussie Rules football champion in the making’. (The books are also available as audio books, narrated by ‘Voice of the G’ Stig Wemyss, from Bolinda Audio.)

If you’re not an Aussie Rules follower and are wondering about Simon Magee’s nickname, a ‘specky’ is a spectacular mark. The best specky of all time (well, of the 20th century, at least) was Alex Jesaulenko’s mark in the 1970 Grand Final. (Not that I’m biased in any way.) In case you missed it, or if you just love re-watching it, you can see it here. And if you want to know why Felice Arena became a Geelong supporter, instead of following the family tradition and barracking for Collingwood, you’ll find the answer on his blog.)

Arena has also included a book about Aussie Rules, titled simply Footy!, in his Sporty Kids series.

Crunched_WagnerMaxx Rumble Footy by Michael Wagner, illustrated by Terry Denton (Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books Australia) Ages 8+

The nine books in Michael Wagner‘s series play on children’s capacity for exaggeration. Maxx Rumble’s deeds on the footy field are simply extraordinary—just ask him. Maxx also plays cricket and soccer (how does he fit it all in?) and Wagner has diligently recorded his feats in those sports, too. All the books are illustrated by Terry Denton, a man whose wicked sense of humour can match anything Maxx (and Wagner) can conjure.

Kick it to NickCrawf’s Kick It To Nick by Shane Crawford and Adrian Beck (Puffin) Ages 5+

Former Hawthorn player and Brownlow medallist Shane Crawford has co-written an eight-book series with TV producer Adrian Beck. The series centres on Nick (captain of the beleaguered Cobar Creek Crocs), Bruiser and Ella. All three are ‘massive footy fans’ who ‘live and breathe AFL’. You’ll find the website for the series here.

Other author series include:

  • Fox Swift, written by David Lawrence with Cyril Rioli (Slattery Media). Ages 9+
  • AFL Footy Kids by Lorraine Wilson (featuring one title for each AFL club) (Puffin). Ages 5+
  • Change the Game. Aussie Rules Adventures by Michael Hyde (Hardie Grant Egmont). Ages 9+
  • AFL Kids by Michael Sedunary (one dedicated title for each AFL club) (SportsKids Productions) Ages 5+

The latter two series are apparently both still in print, but neither feature on their respective publisher’s websites. Copies may be hard to come by.

Single or ‘Stand Alone’ Titles

‘Stand alone’ titles about Australian Rules tend to be aimed at older children, those in the upper primary and lower secondary age groups. Subject matter might include social issues such as racism and sexism.

Footy_DreamingFooty Dreaming by Michael Hyde (Ford Street Publishing). Ages 11+

Set in a country town, Footy Dreaming follows the fortunes of Ben and Noah. Besides competing against each other, the boys have to contend with small town politics, family animosities and racism.

Top Marks by Raewyn Caisley (Hachette). Ages 11+

Caisley’s Top Marks is played out against the backdrop of the relationship between Jack and his grandfather (and coach), and the concept of team before individual.

Still Kicking by Cheryl Critchley (Hachette). Ages 11+

Journalist Cheryl Critchley introduces her readers to Sam Scott. Sam is a 13-year-old girl with a passion for Australian Rules football—not watching the game, playing it— and she faces prejudice from her peers and the sport’s administrators alike.

Picture Books

Although not all picture books are written for very young audiences, these Aussie Rules-themed books are suitable for children in the under-six age group.

MarngrookMarngrook by Titta Secombe, illustrated by Grace Fielding (Magabala Books). ‘Based on the sometimes controversial theory of how Australian Rules Football developed from “marngrook”, a ball game played by Aboriginal people in north west Victoria more than 150 years ago’.

Kick with My Left Foot by Paul Seden, illustrated by Karen Briggs (Allen & Unwin)

Jackson’s Footy by Dwayne Russell, illustrated by Donna Gynell (Slattery Media)

I Love Footy! written and illustrated by Matt Zurbo (Windy Hollow Books)

Captain Kangaroo and the Footy Final written and illustrated by Mandy Foot (Hachette)

Why I Love FootyWhy I Love Footy by Michael Wagner, illustrated by Tom Jellett (Penguin)

And if a lift-the-flap book is more your style, try AFL Where’s My Football? by Daron Parton (Penguin).

That brings me to the end of my meanderings through Aussie Rules books for children. If you are aware of any books I have missed, please share them via the ‘comments’ function.

Happy reading, and may Carlton win more games this season than in 2015!

(Note: My football loyalties are now divided between Australian Rules and Rugby League. A blog post on Rugby League books for children will follow in coming weeks.)

Links and Sources

  • The titles I’ve mentioned in this post should be in print and available for purchase. For older, out-of-print titles, check my list on Trove Australia under the following heading: Australian Rules Football_Children’s Literature (fiction). Books on this list may be still available in public and school libraries, or for purchase via second hand book stores.
  • Because I’ve focused on books for children, I haven’t included novels for young adult readers. If you’re interested in YA books, I’ve created a Trove list under the heading Australian Rules Football_Adolescent Fiction. You’ll find titles like Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly Unna?, Nicole Hayes’ The Whole of My World and Michael Hyde’s Tyger, Tyger on this list.
  • For other forms of writing about Aussie Rules (poetry, plays, biographies, etc), try searching AustLit, an authoritative database about Australian literature. As of March 2016, AustLit lists over 500 works with the subject ‘Australian Rules Football’.
  • TheStatsRevolutionAnd if you’re interested in what happened to Ted Hopkins after he launched the Carlton revival in the 1970 grand final: he published a few books of poetry during the 1980s and then, in 1995, he founded Champion Data which went on to became the official supplier of statistics for the Australian Football League. You can read Hopkins’ own story in The Stats Revolution.