Sports Comics Take the Field

Teamwork, competition, and the glory of team sports drive these graphic novel stories for elementary through high school readers.


Sports show up a lot in graphic novels, not only because they are a big part of many children’s lives, but also because they offer a ready-made set of storytelling tools. Competition, teamwork, and conflict are all baked into the story, and the timetable of seasons and tournaments guides the pacing. But the special sauce in graphic novels such as Gene Luen Yang’s Dragon Hoops, Mike Dawson’s The Fifth Quarter, and Johnnie Christmas’s Swim Team, to name a few, is storytelling that goes beyond the mechanics of the game to look at the underlying motivations and the emotions of the players and the people around them—and how dynamics change as the characters grow, whether through a single game or years of school sports.

These eight graphic novels take a critical look at various characteristics of sports, including competitiveness, team building, and even how the media distorts reality when focusing too closely on one aspect of the game.

CHANANI, Nidhi. Shark Princess: Surfin’ Sharks. illus. by author. Viking. Mar. 2024.
K-Gr 2–Kitana and Mack are off to the Surfin’ Shark Competition—Mack to surf and Kitana to cheer him on. “Surfing” in this context means leaping out of the water and doing some flips. Mack is good, but when he realizes another shark, Telo, is better, he swears off surfing altogether. If he’s not the best, he tells Kitana, he doesn’t want to do it at all. But when a baby shark gets separated from its mother and needs help, Mack uses some of his signature moves to reunite them. He is reminded that surfing is fun and something he wants to do regardless of how good he is. The lesson is simple, but Chanani’s graceful drawings of underwater life, and Mack and Kitana’s simple good humor, make this a fun read.

KHAN, Hena. We Are Big Time. illus. by Safiya Zerrougui. Knopf. Aug. 2024.
Gr 3-7–A girls’ basketball team from a Muslim school in Wisconsin learns team spirit as well as basketball skills from their new coach. Aliya, who just moved with her family from Florida to Milwaukee, is not thrilled with her new surroundings. But things start looking up when she learns her school has a girls’ basketball team. They aren’t very good, but their new coach, Coach Jess, is serious about teaching them not just basketball skills but also how to play as a team. When they start winning, the media pays attention. The girls must field a lot of questions, as clueless reporters ask them how they feel about playing in hijabs, whether their parents oppose them doing sports, and even how they feel about immigration. Despite this, and some pretty mild interpersonal conflicts, Coach Jess does her best to keep them focused on their game. Almost everyone in the story, except for Coach Jess, is Muslim, and while the girls come from different backgrounds and have different looks, they take certain things, like head coverings and daily prayers, for granted. Coach Jess respectfully asks about what she needs to know and appreciates the guidance she gets from the girls. The graphic novel is based on the true story of Milwaukee’s Salam School basketball team, and Khan interviewed several of the players.

[Also read: Graphic Novels Bring Principles of Government and Politics to Life]

SAX, Sarah. Tryouts. illus. by author. Knopf. May 2024.
Gr 3-7–This is the second volume in Sax’s “The Brinkley Yearbooks” series, but it stands on its own. Alexandra, who goes by Al, is too old for rec baseball and not interested in softball, but her school doesn’t have a girls’ baseball team. When her friends point out that the school is legally required to let her try out for the boys’ team, she storms to the athletics office, ready to crusade for her rights, only to be warmly welcomed by the new coach, Coach Conrad. The team has held the championship title for nine years, and Coach Conrad is impressed by Al’s skills as a catcher. Al makes it through the tryout and starts to make friends with her teammates, but when the local news does a feature on her, some team members get turned off. Al’s family is large and redheaded, making them easy to spot in the panels, and her younger brother likes to narrate the games, which helps readers follow along. The art is light and cartoony, with bright colors and flowing lines, giving the story a summertime feel.

SIMON, Coco. Cupcake Diaries: The Graphic Novel: Katie, Batter Up! illus. by Glass House Graphics. Simon Spotlight. Apr. 2024.
Gr 3-7–The spotlight is on Katie in this fifth volume of the “Cupcake Diaries” graphic novels, adapted from the chapter books of the same name. Katie wants to play sports, like her friends in the Cupcake Club. After unsuccessful tries at basketball and soccer, she discovers a sport she’s actually good at: softball. What Katie doesn’t like is the stress of competing. She struggles on anyway, so as not to disappoint her family and friends, until her sports-loving grandmother intervenes and explains that it’s OK to quit if she’s not enjoying it. Instead of giving up sports altogether, though, Katie finds one that doesn’t stress her out: running. The simple, cheery art has a colorful palette that could have been inspired by sports drinks (or cupcake sprinkles).

GILLY, Casey. My Little Pony: Kenbucky Roller Derby. illus. by Abby Bulmer & Natalie Haines. IDW. Nov. 2024.
Gr 4-7–This delightfully funny graphic novel about Roller Derby is a pitch-perfect combination of sparkles and badassery. Sunny is a great skater, but when she is cut in a brutal tryout, she decides to form her own team with a kinder, gentler approach. While she comes up against bullies from the team that cut her, she gets a helping hand from her friends and a retired skater who has a bit of wisdom to impart about playing and competing. Nothing comes easy, but the ponies and other creatures on the ragtag team (including a couple of winged snails who communicate via message boards) work together to overcome the obstacles, and Sunny learns some valuable lessons about leading a team. The colorful, chaotic art suits the subject matter perfectly, and the story has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

PHEGLEY, Kiel. Strikers. illus. by Jacques Khouri. Graphic Universe. Oct. 2023.
Gr 4-8–This story of an underdog hockey team is set in Flint, MI, in the winter of 1986—a time when jobs in the auto industry were disappearing and hope was draining away as well. It’s not a good time for the Strikers, either; the hockey team of 11- and 12-year-olds loses their star player and coach in the first game of the season. Evan Richards, the alternate captain, tries to rally the team, but they just can’t win, nor can they find a dependable coach. The boys eventually take things into their own hands and achieve victory, but their next matchup ends in a forfeit after an opponent deliberately injures their smallest player, Paul, and the Strikers respond with a bench-emptying brawl. For their final game of the season, the team tosses any thought of victory out the window and goes all out to make sure Paul scores a goal. There’s a narrator of sorts, an aging “rink rat” who videotapes the games along with his own colorful commentary, which helps readers follow the action on the ice. Toward the end, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Flint sit-down strike ties the Strikers’ tenacity to the larger town narrative. The art mirrors the story, with dynamic action sequences on the ice and a moody, darker feel for scenes around Flint.

NADINE, Ray. I Felt Myself Slipping. illus. by author. Oni. Sept. 2024.
Gr 7-9–This quiet graphic novel, set in the mid-1990s, follows the friendship between two teenage gymnasts. Riley, a new member of the gym, is hard of hearing and uses hearing aids, although she doesn’t like to wear them during practice and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with the coach. Intrigued by Riley, Dakota starts learning ASL, and once the two develop a rapport, they write notes back and forth in a shared notebook. Riley is grieving her papa, who died in a car crash, and is now trying to adjust to life with her other dad—a busy doctor who is caring, but not very expressive. Dakota, for her part, gets unnerved when she slips on the beam and starts to get scared it will happen again. The two girls help each other through these and other troubles as they progress through a series of tournaments, and their friendship deepens, with a hint of romance at the end. The figures are drawn with loose, flowing lines that work well with the gymnastic sequences. The palette is mostly muted blues and greens, but occasionally blossoms into a pastel rainbow, particularly effective for showing changes of mood or season.

NEWMAN, Jonah. Out of Left Field. illus. by author. Andrews McMeel. Mar. 2024.
Gr 7-9–Jonah is gay but not out. He also wants to play baseball but knows nothing about it. This story, loosely based on author Newman’s own life, follows the fictional Jonah through four years of high school, from his first crush on a guy on the baseball team through to his senior year, when he hits a game-winning home run and breaks up with his first boyfriend. The characters have sex (off panel), drink too much, and engage in typical teenage drama. While Jonah’s teammates taunt him about being gay, using slurs as well as f-bombs, Jonah navigates all this almost too easily, sharing his ups and downs with his friend Sophie. While the coach spends extra time working on Jonah’s skills and defends him from the team’s bullying, he ignores the only girl on the team, Amelia, and never puts her on the field. It is troubling that it doesn’t occur to Jonah to step up for her like others have stepped up for him. Newman uses multiple panels creatively to depict action. While the book is a bit facile in its handling of teenage problems, the engaging story offers food for discussion and thought.

 

Featured image: SLJ modified |TopVectors/Getty Images
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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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