Book Review: Boost

I’ll be honest. I found Kathy Mackel’s novel Boost at the Friends of the Library Book Sale for a quarter. I started reading it because I’d left my other book at home and found myself needing to take the bus. I was hopeful but not expecting all that much.

I found myself pleasantly surprised. The book is not spectacular, but it is good.

Premise: Fourteen-year-old Savvy Christopher plays basketball; her older sister Callie (who is sixteen, maybe?) is a cheerleader. They’ve moved from New Mexico to Rhode Island and find themselves, for various reasons, feeling out of their respective leagues. There’s pressure to perform well at their individual sports as well as pressure, external and internal, to fit in socially. The back cover description, along with the title, hints at the possibility of drug use.

The rest may contain spoilers.

Net shot at a women's basketball game. One player is shooting, both feet off the ground. Another player is on her back, apparently having been knocked to the ground. Other players are behind them.

Caption: 040130-N-6213R-014 U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. (Jan. 30, 2004) – Navy Midshipmen Nikki Curtis gets a shot off over an Army West Point cadet during the Women’s Army Navy basketball game in Alumni Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. Navy edged out Army, 75-73, as part of a double header which pitted both the men and women of the two academies against each other. The men’s team lost to West Point 52-50. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Mark Rebilas. (RELEASED) Image in public domain, obtained via Wikimedia commons.

First, I appreciated the way this novel addressed sports, at least in terms of folks — like the main character and her sister — for whom identifying as an athlete and playing a particular sport is a Very Big Deal. In poorly written novels, I sometimes see only lip service paid to the protagonist’s sport: for instance, they say they love the sport, and the championship game is often described in great detail — but the author glosses over all the hard work and repetitive practice that leads to an athlete’s improvement and/or the team’s championship game. (Only tangentially related, but you know what else I would love to see? An awesome sports novel in which there is no culminating championship game.) Savvy describes basketball as the one thing she needs to have or do in life, but she’s equally committed to her family’s adjustment and welfare as well as fostering new friendships.

Additionally, the way Mackel deconstructs Savvy’s basketball talent is nuanced and realistic. Savvy is tall, yes, but she’s not a good player because she’s tall (though that probably doesn’t hurt). For example, she’s an excellent shooter and judge of other players’ motion cues. However, she herself gets easily flustered and favors her right side. Crucially, Savvy is used to being a star player — because of her ability to shoot — but is not one on her new team.

Though it’s not the focus of the novel, I was also impressed with Boost’s portrayal of cheerleading. Socially, there is an emphasis on cheerleaders as the “popular” girls and how they associate with the “popular” boys — that is, the football team. But the social dynamic is separate from the sport itself, which is described more with strength, stamina, gymnastics, and stunts than it is with cheer rhymes, short skirts, and waving pom pons.

I sort of want to mention something about the various ways in which Boost incorporates performance-enhancing drug use — pressures, realities, stigma, misconceptions — but I don’t want to give too very much away. Suffice it to say, it does happen on multiple fronts.

If I have any major complaints about the novel, it’s that some of the narration seems simplistic, and some of the points seem too overt for my taste. But I have to balance that against the fact that various sources list the target age range for this book as grades 6-9 and/or ages 12 and up. It may not be the most satisfying read for folks who are looking for something more sophisticated. But it is engaging inside of being age-appropriate — and I didn’t exactly mind reading it on the bus and beyond. :)

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