By Carl Deuker
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
I don't often read sports books, but I found myself surprisingly impressed by Carl Deuker's SWAGGER after I picked it up on a recommendation. It's told in simple but compelling language. I think boys like the main characters Jonas Dolan and Levi Rawdon who aren't big on school and studying would enjoy reading it.
Jonas is a good basketball player. He's never gonna be a pro, but his coach thinks that he could get a scholarship for a Division II team. And he's right - Jonas has a real chance at Monitor College if he can bring his grades up. But then he has to move to a new school. Coach Knecht has a totally different style and his lab science (chemistry) teacher is so tough that Jonas will be lucky to get a D. He needs to get playtime during games and he needs to make a B to get the scholarship. The new Coach Hartwell is a dream come true for Jonas, since he plays a more up-tempo game and promises to help Jonas (and his friend Levi) with their grades.
I found the basketball parts of SWAGGER surprisingly enjoyable. Deuker does a good job of explaining how different positions on the team work together and how different plays can suit different players' styles better. I'll never be interested in watching basketball, but I felt like I was following the descriptions of the games. I also liked the realism of Jonas being talented, but not one of the incredibly few players who can make it as a professional. His dedication to studying to get the scholarship leading into some genuine interest in his education was also an interesting storyline.
But the heart of SWAGGER is the reveal that the likeable Coach Hartwell is a predator. The hints of it start early, particularly the way he finds ways to make each of the boys on the team indebted to him so that they'll keep his secrets. Levi is also understandably reluctant to come forward and tell everyone what happened to him. He can barely tell Jonas, his best friend. SWAGGER remains realistic here too, as Jonas fails to read all of Levi's signals and respond absolutely perfectly to the truth. Hartwell is always at fault for what happens, but that doesn't make everybody else in the story perfect.
SWAGGER has lots of appeal for reluctant readers and fans of Chris Crutcher. It also reads somewhat younger than Chris Crutcher's books. I can see this in a middle school library. The abuse is not graphic.