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of the Center for Children's Books

Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes a new talent whose work has begun to come into its own and sometimes an old favorite whose reliable contributions deserve notice. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Carl Deuker

September. Back to school. Parental attention may focus on return to the classroom, but many students will argue that the important destination is the locker room. For young adult readers who reckon the academic year by sport seasons rather than semesters, Carl Deuker offers a trio of novels than span the calendar with explosive plays, rich characterizations, and incisive scrutiny of the particular power of truly gifted athletes to ignite--and sometimes to incinerate--their teams.

In his debut novel, On the Devil's Court (BCCB 12/88), Deuker establishes the scenario he revisits in ensuing works: an able high school team stalled in the rankings by a long-standing rival, and a new guy who carries the promise of a shot in the finals. Joe Faust moves to Washington State in his senior year and, after distressing his high-powered father with an initial poor choice of friends, lands in a private school with a surprisingly good basketball team. All they need is some fresh blood to galvanize them, and all Joe needs is the chance to prove himself as talented a basketball player as his father is a genecist. Obsessed with improving his game and spooked by class discussions of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (and, naturally, by his own last name), Joe comes to believe that his prowess on the court derives from a deal he's cut with the devil. Deuker cunningly shrouds the veracity of this deal in ambiguity. [And no doubt more than one ninth grade English class has shredded the novel, analyzing evidence for and against the pact.] There's no question that Joe's presence on the team has clinched their undefeated season, but accounting for the team's equally electrifying performance without Joe in two playoff games is quite another matter. Deuker leaves readers pondering the source of an athlete's power and, correlatively, a team's success.

Heart of a Champion (BCCB 9/93) shifts to the diamond, with narrator Seth Barham recounting the baseball career of his best friend Jimmy Winter. Under the tutelage of Jimmy and his alcoholic father, Seth begins a steady but unremarkable rise through Little League and on to the freshman high school team. Jimmy leaves the area temporarily when his father abuses his mother, but returns freshman year with his prodigious talent as a hitter intact, and a bitter, rebellious attitude to boot. The friends share one glorious winning season, but by sophmore year Jimmy has moved up to varsity, leaving Seth in the jayvee dust. The varsity team becomes increasingly dependent on Jimmy and equally talented Todd Franks, soon dubbed the Bruise Brothers, but Jimmy's class-cutting and drinking result in suspensions and even cost them a play-off. Seth works his way up to second base on varsity, but by then Jimmy's life off the field has spun out of control. Ultimately Jimmy dies in a car accident, drunk at the wheel; his team limps to a season victory, only to lose in the state playoffs. Beneath the slightly didactic anti-drinking message lies another troubling observation--the tendency to set star players beyond reproach. In idolizing Jimmy ("he pumped a little of his blood into our veins") [93] and merrily riding the Bruise Brothers coattails to win after win, teammates exculpate even their most flagrant offenses. "They were both going to be major-league stars-famous millionaires. Nobody blamed them much for blowing the chance for the playoffs. Drinking was part of the package--like Jose Canseco with his fast cars." [139]

It is the motif of the ethically privileged star that Deuker develops in his most recent novel, Painting the Black (BCCB 6/97). Josh Daniels, a transfer senior, sweeps into the starting quarterback position; within weeks he's consolidated a power base among his teammates, from which he launches a nasty harassment campaign against girls in the cafeteria. The administration looks the other way until he humiliates Celeste Honor, the class tease. Josh gets benched and his misdeed costs the team its playoff chance, but he blazes back for baseball season as star pitcher. Josh is as astonishing on the diamond as he is on the gridiron, and finals look like a sure thing until he sexually assaults classmate Monica Robey, a beautiful, opinionated academic star who publicly ridicules John's athleticism. At each malefaction the victim is censured and Josh is partially exonerated: Celeste had "been asking for it, at least a little," and Monica "could have let Josh ride high. She could have let him have his moment." Narrator Ryan Ward, Josh's catcher and apologist, finally blows the whistle on him, but as the team's season evaporates, Josh is merely slapped with forty hours of community service and finishes the year by signing with the Colorado Rockies .

Deuker undeniably drags the seamier aspects of high school athletics into the light--uncritical adulation of superior players, friendships broken by opportunism, internal and external pressure to win at any price--but he never sours on the game itself or its power to transform good boys into better men. Bats crack, helmets clash, nets swish, and the rivalries are rabid and infectious. Joe Faust earns his father's respect; Seth Barham, catches a most satisfying case of baseball fever from which he'll never recover; Ryan Ward pushes his skill and endurance to limits he never imagined he could achieve; even Josh Daniels "just might make it if he can get his head screwed on right." [243] This is just the anything-can-happen optimism needed to kick off the school year, so set those Deukers on display and get ready for another great season.

--Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

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This page was last updated on September 1, 1997.