One thing the boys are looking forward to, however, is making the football team. Not every one will get what he wants, though, on the field and at home.
Here is a story about how life, like sports, can be unpredictable, frustrating, and exhilarating. Love of the Game by John Coy is part of the 4 for 4 series, an action-packed middle grade series for young readers about four boys from diverse backgrounds who deal with family, friendship, and school situations.
“There is a nice balance between the sports action and the portrayal of young people navigating the difficulties of growing up both at home and at school. Realistic characters, believable dialogue and a genuine feel for the rhythms and issues of middle-schoolers make this a satisfying addition to a solid middle-grade set.” Kirkus Reviews
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Where on earth is the bus?
I step out into the street and squint into the sun. I check my phone. 7:33. It’s supposed to be here.
Behind me two older girls with straight, black hair, one with purple nail polish and the other with blue, ignore me completely as they argue about whether somebody named Rex is hot.
Where’s the bus? You’d think they’d make sure it was on time on the first day of middle school. I’ve already got enough to worry about with lockers, schedules, and the awful things eighth graders are dreaming up to do to us.
I check my phone again. 7:33. How can that be? It feels like ten minutes have passed. I smooth down my new gold Nike T-shirt. Dad tried to get me to wear the new jeans we bought last week, but I told him you don’t want to overdo it on the first day of middle school. You can’t look like you’re trying too hard.
7:34. The bus is late. The first day is pressure enough without showing up after the bell. The bus driver should be fired. I hear a low rumbling. Coming around the corner is the orange box on wheels that means summer is officially over.
I shove my phone in my backpack and listen to the two girls. They’ve finally found a subject they can agree on: Logan. “Stay away from him. He’ll pretend to be nice but will stab you in the back.”
As the bus pulls up, I wish my best friend Gig was on it. We rode the same bus for six years to elementary school, but now we’re on different routes. I never thought I’d admit it, but I could use some of his stupid jokes right now.
The bus door opens and I freeze. All of a sudden I don’t want to get on. My feet feel superglued to the sidewalk.
“Move it.” One of the girls pushes me in the back.
As I climb the steps I’m shocked to see that the bus is already jam packed. Kids are squished together three to a seat, talking and laughing.
“Find a seat.” The bus driver, who’s got bushy hair popping out of a baseball hat, points over his shoulder. He’s playing country music that sounds like it’s about a hundred years old.
I move farther back and feel the eyes of every seventh and eighth grader sizing me up. The competing perfumes, colognes, and deodorant mingle together. Other kids must have been like me and kept putting it on.
Halfway back my friend Isaac is mashed up against a window. “I didn’t know you were on this bus.”
“Jackson?” He’s squeezed in by two boys who take up the rest of the seat.
“Save me a place tomorrow.”
“Sixers can’t save seats.” The boy on the aisle has peanut butter breath. He pushes me and I fall against a girl with glasses and try to regain my balance.
Two girls with eye shadow so heavy they look like raccoons check their phones. I don’t want to sit with girls, but I don’t want to keep going back either.
“Can I sit here?” I try to sound friendly.
“No!” The girls don’t even look up.
“That’s my seat.” The girl with purple nail polish pushes past me.
“We need everybody sitting down,” the bus driver hollers.
With every step back I feel like I’m being sucked into the eighth-grade black hole. The boys back here are bigger and tougher and some of them are swearing every other word.
“Here’s a seat,” a boy wearing wraparound sunglasses calls from the rear. A blond kid with spiked hair sitting next to him laughs.
In the last seat of the bus on the left side, a gigantic guy is sitting all by himself. He’s so big he must play football. He’s so big he could be the entire left side of an offensive line.
“Can I sit down?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Have a seat.” The sunglasses kid shoves me against the huge guy who pushes me away. I get shoved back and forth between them like a Ping-Pong ball. Finally I turn my legs to the side and hold my hands out in front of me.
“Sixer?” Sunglasses asks.
“What?” I look to the bus driver, but he’s not paying any attention.
“Are you in sixth grade?”
“The back is reserved for eighth graders.” His voice is raspy and he looks a lot older, like maybe he flunked a couple of grades. “What do you have for rent?”
“Sixers pay rent back here. What do you have for money?”
“I don’t have any money.” I hold out my hands.
“That’s baaaaaaad.” The way he stretches it out sounds worse.
“What do you have for food?” The spike-haired kid leans over.
“Just my lunch.”
“Hand it over,” Sunglasses says.
I take off my backpack and unzip it as the bus driver turns a corner and the big guy falls into me and almost knocks me off the seat. We’re not picking anybody else up, so my stop must be the last one.
“Hurry up,” Spike Head commands. “I’m starving.”
I take out my lunch and Sunglasses swipes it out of my hands. He pulls out potato chips, Oreo cookies, and cheese and crackers.
“What’s this?” He makes a face as he pulls open my sandwich.
“Tur … tur … turkey and sun-dried tomato.”
“Nasty.” He throws it on the floor and stomps on it with his boot. “Bring better food tomorrow … or else.” He holds up the plastic bag of carrot and celery sticks. “Do I look like a rabbit?”
He tosses the bag at me as he and Spike Head shove cheese and crackers into their mouths. My stomach rumbles as the crackers crunch.
“We want brownies, Rice Krispie bars, and Twinkies tomorrow,” Spike Head says with food falling out of his mouth.
“And rent money,” Sunglasses adds. “Don’t forget the money.”
* * *
When the bus pulls up in front of the school, Isaac is waiting for me. “How bad was it back there?” He’s wearing new black-and-red Nikes and an Under Armour shirt.
“Terrible.” The entrance to Longview Middle School towers over us.
“Where you two losers been?” Gig rushes up and bumps into me.
“Our bus was late.”
“Mine was right on time.”
“Where’s Diego?” Isaac asks.
“No clue,” Gig says. “He doesn’t ride the bus so I don’t know how he’s getting here.”
Some of the students can’t wait to get in, but others like us stand around outside soaking up the final seconds of freedom.
“I’m glad to have different teachers in middle school,” Isaac says.
I remember Mrs. Spanier from last year. “We’re not going to get stuck with one boring teacher.”
“No, now we’re going to have lots of boring teachers,” Gig says. “I wish we could skip school and go straight to Echo Park for football.”
“Me, too.” I twirl the strap on my backpack. I’d love to smash into somebody on the football field right now.
“We’re going to have a good team,” Isaac says. “Diego’s going to help us out.”
“Wait and see,” Gig says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He hasn’t done anything yet in football,” Gig says. “He needs to prove himself.”
When the bell rings, people push toward the entrance. I look around for Diego but can’t find him. We’re funneled to the door like cattle forced into a slaughterhouse.
A spitball whizzes past my head. A sweaty kid elbows me and shoves me aside. I’m not even in the building yet, and I’ve got a bad feeling about middle school.
Copyright © 2011 by John Coy
Reading Group Guide
1. "In middle school, people pay attention to who you hang out with." (p. 30)
Where does Jackson fit into the middle school hierarchy? How does he see himself in relation to his friends and his classmates?
2. What new friends do the boys make in middle school? How does that change them? Does it have any impact on their friendship or how they see themselves?
3. How does Jackson deal with the bullies he encounters? Does he avoid them, fight them, befriend them or use another method to make the attacks stop? What should he do when bullies confront him and make demands?
4. Why does Jackson avoid Mr. Amodt, the librarian, when he tries to get him to sign up for READ Club? Why doesn't he want to join the group, and why does he change his mind later?
5. Gig's guidance counselor tells him that "different family members handle these things differently." (p. 84)
How do Gig and Sydney's responses to their father's deployment in Afghanistan differ? What do their responses suggest about their personalities?
6. "This was never our house, just a place we were staying while Mom's friends were gone. Even so, it felt like home. I've never even seen Ted's house. There's no way that's going to feel like home." (p. 74-75)
Jackson's family is house-sitting for friends, and though they live in a nice place, it doesn't feel like home. What makes a place feel like home? What would have to change in order for Jackson to feel like the place he lives is his home? Try to define "home."
7. At first, Jackson sees Tiny and Nick Speros as potential bullies, but eventually he sees them in a more positive light. Why did he see them that way in the first place, and why did his opinion of them change? What did they do or say to change his idea of them? See if you can find specific passages where changes occurred.
8. "I don't care if Gig gives me a hard time about Ruby. He's just jealous because no girl came to watch him." (p. 180)
In Eyes on the Goal, Jackson had a crush on Angela, but eventually he gave up on her. Why? How are his interactions with Ruby different from those he had with Angela? What do you think will come of Jackson and Ruby's relationship?
Overarching Questions and Activities
4 for 4 Series by John Coy
Top of the Order: 978-0-312-37329-0
Eyes on the Goal: 978-0-312-37330-6
Love of the Game: 978-0-312-37331-3
Take Your Best Shot: 978-0-312-37332-0
Grade Range: 3-7 grade; Age Range: 8-12 years
1. "I don't notice day-to-day changes, but when I think back to fifth grade, a lot has changed."(Take Your Best Shot p. 125)
The 4 for 4 series covers seven months, from May of the boys' fifth grade year to November of their sixth grade year. How have Jackson, Gig, Isaac, and Diego changed between Top of the Order and Take Your Best Shot? What specific events in each book changed them or taught them something? Who do you think has changed the most?
Think back to seven months ago. How have you changed since then? What have you learned? What events in your life have caused you to change? Have you changed as much as Jackson, Gig, Isaac, and Diego have?
2. "You have to know what you want. Otherwise, he'll decide for you. . . He'll push, but if you stand your ground with him, he'll respect your decision." (Top of the Order p. 56)
The four boys sometimes clash with authority figures like parents, teachers, and coaches, but at times they have to stand up for what they believe in or what is right for them. When do they admit that they were wrong, and admit that adults were right? When do they stand up for themselves because they know what they want? How do their decisions change them and help them grow?
3. How do Jackson's first impressions of people change after he gets to know them? Does he ever misjudge people, and think a person is different from how he or she actually is? Why? How does he discover what they're really like?
For example, why is Jackson surprised when Ted comes through for him? (Love of the Game p. 151-152)
4. "Right now my best chance to start is switching to defense. I don't care what Gig and Isaac think. I've got to do what's best for me." (Love of the Game p. 77)
Throughout the books, Jackson, Gig, Isaac, and Diego talk a lot about how important it is for them to stick together. However, they sometimes realize that they need to make decisions on their own, even if their friends disagree. How do they each learn to make decisions independently? What do they each decide to do that the others don't approve of?
5. Do each of the boys have a different sport that they're best at and enjoy the most? Which sport is it for each character? Do you have a favorite sport? Is it the same as the one you are best at?
6. What are their different strengths and weaknesses of each of the characters, in sports and in life? Do you find that some of the things that you are strong with in sports are also things that you're strong with in other areas of your life? Do some of the things you struggle with show up in other areas. Or is there a difference between success in sports and success in other areas of life? 7. What new challenges do you think will face the boys during the rest of the school year? The rest of middle school? How do you think baseball will go for them in sixth grade? Will Sydney come out for the team?
8. Which of the characters do you relate to the most? Why? Do the other characters remind you of people you know? Do you think you and some of the people you know would make good characters in a book?