Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Review: Heat

Heat is on The Cybils shortlist in the Middle Grade fiction category.

Confession time: I did not pick up Heat, by Mike Lupica, when it first came out (Spring 2006) because it is about baseball.

But, Heat quickly became a much-discussed book amongst the members of The Cybils Middle Grade Fiction panel, so I had to read it. And, boy, am I glad I did.

12-year-old Michael Arroyo is a born pitcher. So much so, that when he's on the mound he forgets everything. He forgets that he and his older brother, Carlos, are on their own and that Carlos is working three jobs to support them. He forgets that he's keeping secrets from everyone around him and must avoid authorities at all cost. He's such a good pitcher that he's the star of his Bronx Little League team, a team on the way to the Little League World Series. He's such a good pitcher that his best friend, Manny, says his pitches are regularly clocking 80.

When Michael is accused of being older than 12 by a rival team's coach, he has to sit out game after game. Michael, you see, came to the States on a boat from Cuba and he has no birth certificate. Moreover, with his dad not around, he has no way of retrieving the official document required by the Little League Commission. Michael spends his days practicing with Manny (who is a catcher), working with his team, The Clippers, as a third-base coach, and watching the Yankees enter their stadium on game days. He watches, in particular, for his hero--El Grande, a pitcher from Cuba.

Heat is a fairy-tale of a story--everything rights itself in the end. But, it's also a story about relationships--in the neighborhood, with your best (if overly talkative) friend, with your brother, and, most of all, with your team. Although Michael was the best player on his team, his teammates pull together without him and triumph in the end. They accept his coaching and Michael learns to be part of their success even when he's not on the mound.

A childhood friend recently asked me what book I'd recommend for reluctant junior high readers. Heat was the first book that came to mind. Lupica has written an action-packed novel, sure to please young readers ages nine to fifteen. It's a novel about trust (there's even a well-meaning "official person"), love, baseball, and family. It's a gem of a tale.
Like Liz B., I've also decided this year to disclose from where I've received a book. I purchased Heat from a bookstore and read it as part of my deliberations on The Cybils Middle Grade nominating panel. Heat was selected as one of the top five novels of 2006 by our panel.