Jo Stanley’s Play Like a Girl Chapter Book Series (in collaboration with AFLW*) is my surprise find for the year. Each of the four books follows a different protagonist with a minor issue to overcome while playing (Australian Rules) footy for the Millsborough West Girls’ Under 12 Football Team (The Flyers). Sarah has just moved to a new area and a new school; Hanh is jealous of her best friend; Rainbow is the “weird” kid who doesn’t fit in at school; Lucy is shy and not just because she wears hearing aids. They are all coached by Shawna, a tough, sporty woman with a loud voice and spiky blue hair. The books are simple and the story problems are very brief and easy to resolve, but the characterisation is great with a broad range of different personalities and motivations. Finding out how these girls are going to cope and succeed is rather compelling.
Bring It On! (Book 1)
Goofy new girl Sarah is buddied up with Hanh for her first day at her new school, so she has someone to show her around. Sarah tags along with Hanh to meet a real AFLW footy star at a coaching clinic during recess. She copes with her nerves by clowning around and the positive response from the other girls encourages her. Sarah is athletic from years of surfing, and though she’s never played footy before she has watched it on TV. So she thinks she knows what she’s doing – but what she doesn’t know is that junior players are not allowed to make the acrobatic leaps off other players to catch the ball, the way the professionals do. Sarah’s impulsive wild flying “specky” results in a bloody nose for Hanh, and Sarah is horrified. In misery, she passes an apology note to Hanh in class, and to her surprise Hanh is totally forgiving, and even impressed by her mark. The two become firm friends after all and Sarah is encouraged to try out for the Flyers. Sarah struggles with the coaching style of Coach Shawna, but her determination wins through and she gets her chance.
Dream Team! (Book 2)
Hanh and her friend Rainbow have the perfect midfield partnership, passing the ball to each other like magic. But when the captaincy comes up for grabs, and they are both in the running for it, Hanh’s insecurity causes her to make a series of poor decisions that costs her the chance for the second time. Now, with Rainbow as captain, jealousy makes Hanh’s life miserable and threatens her friendship with Rainbow. But after Hanh accidentally discovers that Rainbow has no friends at the school she attends, her feelings towards her soften. A series of small events and introspection help Hanh realise she can still participate the way she was hoping to, and that her friendships are worth more to her than a “C” behind her name.
Totally Epic! (Book 3)
Rainbow, an orphan who lives with her grandmother, is beginning to suspect that other kids at her school think she’s “too much”. She’s bigger than other kids her age, she’s much louder, she rarely bothers to brush her hair, and, when it gets in her eyes, she simply hacks off her fringe with craft scissors. Luckily her Flyers team mates think she’s awesome on and off the field, and playing footy is one thing that lets Rainbow feel like she’s free to be totally herself. When fellow-Flyer Lucy invites Rainbow over to her house so they can work on decorations for a fundraiser disco, Rainbow is over the moon. Finally she feels like she has friends and she belongs.
Rainbow thinks her op-shop finds for the disco are brilliant – the brightest, shiniest combination of green pants, orange top, and red sequined hat. Her unique fashion style prompts a nasty comment or two but her team mates spring to her defence and cheer her up. At her next game, Rainbow observes the nastiness of the opposing team, which is even directed at their own players if they make a mistake or are outplayed. When Rainbow springs to the defence of her opponent, her kind words win the Flyers a new team mate, and a new friend.
Smashing It! (Book 4)
Lucy has the reputation of being the fastest player on the team, and the secret to her speed is her knack of keeping out of sight and predicting where the ball will go – and then getting there first. Unfortunately, during a particularly rainy semi-final game, Lucy slips and sprains an ankle. The Flyers make it through to the Final, which is two weeks away. Lucy is desperate for her injury to heal in time, but she is in danger of sinking into the depths of self-pity and giving up hope. But Coach Shawna knows exactly how to handle the situation – she insists that Lucy attend the training sessions despite her injury and she keeps Lucy involved by getting her to throw balls for her team mates to mark and collect. Lucy’s oldest friend Maddie offers to be Lucy’s rehab coach. At the pre-match training Lucy pushes herself too hard to prove she’s fit to be on the team, and re-injures herself within the first minutes of the match. But Lucy still has an important job to do – her eagle eyes spot a weakness in the opposing side’s best player and her strategic thinking helps her team win the Grand Final.
It appears that a fifth book will be published in 2018.
*AFLW: Australian Football League for Women
Elle Carter Neal is the author of the middle-grade chapter book The Convoluted Key, picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, holding childhood slumber-party audiences entranced until the early hours of the morning. Elle decided to be an author the day she discovered that real people wrote books and that writing books was a real job.