John R. Tunis Essay - Critical Essays

Tunis, John R.


John R. Tunis 1889–1975

American novelist, nonfiction writer, and journalist. Tunis is considered by many critics and readers to be the dean of the American juvenile sports novel, and several of his books, such as The Kid from Tomkinsville and Schoolboy Johnson, are classics in that field. His sports books are characterized by their authentic athletic background, attributable to his experience as a newspaper sportswriter and radio commentator. This intimate knowledge of sports provides realistic settings, but his novels are more than simple sports chronicles. His well-plotted adventures are examinations of character as well as action, with sports being used to test both individual ethics and broader social values. Using complex characters who face a variety of ethical dilemmas, he invests his work with moral concerns that range from the growth of personal integrity to the effects of racism on the young. His success is attributed by many critics to the fact that he regards his readers as adults and does not talk down to them. However, it has also been noted that his work at times takes a too strongly didactic tone, as in A City for Lincoln, where one high school student's forthright statement of belief changes the attitude of an entire town. Tunis has incorporated his sports themes in several novels which treat the brutality of war in a realistic manner, particularly His Enemy, His Friend. Besides his sports novels, Tunis has written several analyses of the contemporary sports world, both professional and amateur. Like his novels, these nonfiction accounts are concerned with the social implications of sport. In all cases, his work is concerned with the dilemmas and decisions that are the constants in any situation in which pressure is placed on an individual. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

"Sports"—we need not repeat the typesetter's wretched pun [changing the first and last letters of the title to dollar signs]—is a highly-amusing, highly-instructive paroxism of feeling…. Its aim is to lay bare what goes on in the locker-rooms at Olympic Games and Tennis Tournaments….

The book has faults, but the faults certainly are not lack of sincerity, or lack of vigor, or pusillanimity, or lack of information; the outstanding trouble with it is that at times Mr. Tunis talks his information so rapidly and shouts so vigorously that neither he nor the reader is able to hear himself think. The horrors of the situation are flung out in a merciless bombardment; and the resulting effect, although diverting always, is frequently confusing. In the maelstrom the reader is tempted to take shelter by saying; "Oh, Olympic Games can't really be as bad as this!"…

In spite of the confusion, however, the book carries conviction. It is, of course, not a book for those who look for literature in their reading. It is rather for the reader who reads sports or plays sports or who has children who do those things. For such people Mr. Tunis's cruel and amusing outburst against the present equivocal state of amateur sport could not possibly be a waste of time. If you want to know the worst about your heroes, says Tunis, here it is. (p. 256)

The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1928, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 13, 1928.

S. L. Thomas

The title "American Girl" is rather unfortunate. It is too diffuse, covers too much territory, whereas the heroine, Florence Farley, with whom the book deals as child and young woman, is an individualized human being with a special life and a special soul of her own, and not just any American girl. The picture of her childhood is most vivid. An attractive, interesting, delicate little girl, she happens to show a particular aptitude for tennis playing. This determines her career. She becomes a tennis champion.

Mr. Tunis has done well to choose the background of sport. He is most at home in the world of sport, as we know from his various writings. But it is essential, in order to do justice to the book, to bear in mind that the author has used the knowledge of his specialty merely for the purpose of providing authentic and convincing settings. In all else he is purely the novelist with the artist's eye to the portrayal of his men and women and the unfolding of the life story of his heroine. He shows that he knows his men and women as well as he knows the technique of their profession….

"American Girl" is [primarily] a tragedy, with Florence Farley as its pathetic heroine. Naturally, after she has grown to womanhood, her soul reactions, the direction of her emotions, the whole ensemble, in fact, which we call a person's character, is to a large extent determined by her career and the environment into which she is cast...

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Bruce Rae

Tunis, doughty campaigner for the revival of the late-lamented Amateur Spirit, has, in "American Girl," attempted the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of American amateur tennis….

As a novel, "American Girl" is far from first-rate. Mr. Tunis rides his hobby too hard. Every single thing in the book is written in terms of tennis. That would be all right if Mr. Tunis had shown dramatically just how the business of being tennis champion inevitably tended to crowd all other things from Miss Farley's life. But he lets certain scenes—for example, the one in which Miss Farley renounces love to remain champion—pass with more than cinematographic speed.

Bruce Rae, "The Tennis Racket," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1930 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 24, 1930, p. 7.

Anne T. Eaton

[Tunis has succeeded in "The Iron Duke"] as few writers do succeed, in writing a college story for boys which is not a mere chronicle of … athletic triumphs of one kind or another and which … avoids the attempt at a critical summing up of college education and its effects that characterizes most college-fiction written for adults.

The story is modern and up-to-date, the situations unforced, the characters alive. One is not only interested in what Jim and his room-mates do … but in what they think and feel and in Jim's development as an individual. Tunis writes well, in a vivid, direct style….

Anne T. Eaton, "Harvard Days," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1938 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1938, p. 10.

Ellen Lewis Buell

The Kid from Tomkinsville [protagonist of the book of the same name] was a sand-lot rookie … who pitched and batted his way to fame, but this is more than the story of one man's success, for it turns inside out the making of a winning baseball team. Here, in prose which has the good hard smack of ash against leather and the quick impressions and scope of a candid camera, are portrayed the problems, the disappointments and the sheer nerve of a team….

[Even] a reader who does not know a hit from an error will respond to the tense excitement of play-by-play accounts of games. It is, however, the finer values of sportsmanship interpreted in very human and masculine terms which make this more than just a tale of sport.

Ellen Lewis Buell, "A Baseball Story," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1940 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 9, 1940, p. 9.

Ellen Lewis Buell

Mr. Tunis's champion [Janet Johnson in "Champion's Choice"] is his first heroine, a tennis star who scaled the heights of Wimbledon, and stayed there, not by technique and strength only but, as a champion must, by knowing how to call on the last ounce of fighting spirit….

Her first victory at Wimbledon, where she perceived that tennis was a contest of character as well as skill, came early…. From then on Janet … became almost more champion than she was human being…. She was a sports-manlike fighter and a smart one, but she was also a hard-boiled one, until … she realized there were other things in life more desirable than tennis honors.

It is not an entirely glamorous...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

["World Series" is] the story of a team in its most important series, and especially of Dave Leonard, the game veteran manager for whom his men would give their last spurt of strength and skill. It is Dave … who rallies the team when … it falls into one of those inexplicable and costly slumps….

There is less emphasis upon characters here, and a little less upon the qualities of mind and heart which make champions of individual players than in ["The Kid from Tomkinsville"], but there is even more of baseball … described with … tempo and force….

Ellen Lewis Buell, "With the Dodgers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1941 by the New York...

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Alice M. Jordan

[All-American, a] fine football story, is soundly set against the background of life in a large city high school. Faced with the problems of race and social standing, as well as of real values compared with popularity, Ronald Perry has a chance to see what is meant by democracy. Mr. Tunis's name is guarantee both for the vigor and accuracy of the sport sections and for the high note of character and citizenship. Boys and girls will find it an exciting story and a timely one, firmly grounded in a liberal conception of the meaning of democracy. (p. 425)

Alice M. Jordan, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1942, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), November,...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

No one writing for boys today can describe a touchdown or a home run with more photographic clarity than John Tunis, but [he] always has a good deal more to say than just sports talk. ["All-American" is] his most penetrating book on sport in American life….

As star halfback for the Academy team Ronald had his world in his hand until the day of the big game against the High School. Rivalry between the Academy and the High School went deeper than sport,… for there was real animus and scorn on both sides. When Ronald nearly killed a High School player in that game he was … deeply shocked at the callousness with which his friends (imbued with a snobbery which seems a little more obtuse than is...

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Margaret C. Scoggin

John Tunis has long had a monopoly on sport stories because of his taut, vigorous style, his sure knowledge of games and lingo, and his understanding of players. Add to that a definite belief about the place of democracy in sport. His All-American … is not only a fast-paced football story but also an account of how a young athlete and his fellow high school students reacted when a neighboring school refused to play their team unless the star end, a Negro, was left behind. No punches are pulled in the handling of race prejudice and commercialism in sport; here are some specific problems of democracy in terms young people can understand.

Mr. Tunis has done much to kill the curse of...

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May Lamberton Becker

A good baseball story can leave you in a lather of excitement—over baseball. But when it keeps you stirred up over baseball from first to last and leaves you excited over a vital issue in American life, it is something special in sports literature. "All-American" gave notice … what we might expect from Tunis. "Keystone Kids" is another exercise of the same special gift. (p. 6)

May Lamberton Becker, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1943.

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Ellen Lewis Buell

When those hypothetical historians of the next century begin to investigate the sports world of our day they will do well to turn to the works of John Tunis…. [They] will find in them an accurate picture of both the tempo and temper of American sports. Futhermore, they throw an interesting sidelight on certain contemporary issues of our times, for Mr. Tunis is much interested in the place of sports in the democratic way of life and vice versa.

[In "Keystone Kids"] he deals, as in "All-American," frankly and realistically with racial intolerance….

At first, casually, carelessly, then with conscious animus, the players rag the [Jewish] newcomer, ruining his nerve and also the...

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Arthur Hepner

[Tunis is waging a successful campaign] to pose fundamental issues in young readers' minds. Twice before—in "Duke Decides" and "All American"—he told sports stories that put down the hard, tough facts of getting along in a democracy. Now he does it again, dramatically and trenchantly.

"Keystone Kids" is a baseball story, the tale of two inseparable orphaned brothers who are a sensation on the field because of their mastery of the game. The story is harsh and disillusioning, for it strips the glamor from big-league baseball. It shows how utterly ruthless, selfish and heartless professional athletes can be, how they have no interest in the game qua game and how they resent anyone who does....

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May Lamberton Becker

One who reads ["Rookie of the Year"], man or boy, sees baseball not from the stands but from the inside, sharing viewpoint and sensations with Spike Russell, young manager of the Dodgers…. Because he has been thinking of only one game at a time, the story's suspense begins over with each game, tightening from one surprise to another. This is no school story with climax in one game: professional baseball climaxes continually, and each chapter closes with the impact of spectators trooping out of the ball park.

There is no special social problem in this Tunisian, which gets its complications from baseball and human nature….

Full of life, around the [central] story surges the...

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Mary Gould Davis

["Rookie of the Year"] is not as good a book as "Keystone Kids." It is as though Mr. Tunis has written it not out of an overwhelming urge but out of a mild desire to carry Spike and his team a bit farther on in their history…. The real value of the book lies in the games, especially toward the end when the Dodgers play the Cardinals for the pennant. Here is the good, honest thrill of a sport that has its devotees in far-flung camps and outposts all over the face of the earth.

Mary Gould Davis, "Good Old Dodgers," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1944, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 15, 1944, p. 74.


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Ellen Lewis Buell

["A City for Lincoln"] represents something of a departure from [Tunis's] sports stories—there is only one basketball game, heard off-stage—but it is really a part of the main pattern which he has been depicting, the pattern of democracy in everyday American life….

Though the story seems a little slick, a little too managed in spots, Mr. Tunis makes politics as exciting as sports and of immediate significance…. [He] gives youth something to think about and something to believe in. (p. 34)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1945.


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May Lamberton Becker

You enter ["A City for Lincoln"] through a typical Tunis game, guaranteed to stir the blood even of one unfamiliar with finer points of basketball…. These opening chapters announce a purpose …: "Give kids responsibility and they'll come through for you, every time."…

[A Juvenile Aid Division and Junior Court is put in basketball coach Don Henderson's hands.] The procedure of this court, the students' gradual recognition that law-breaking is no joke, forms the body of the story which … is told in cases, with earnestness and power…. [The treatment of a case of teenage shoplifting] is the most sincere, sensible consideration a book for teens has given a problem not unknown to adolescence…....

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Ralph Adams Brown

Boys have long been used to good sport stories from the pen of John R. Tunis. [The Kid Comes Back] is, however, more than a good baseball story and so merits special attention. There is much baseball in it, with a smashing finale…. The story opens with the Kid's bomber making a forced landing in occupied France….

[After various adventures the] Kid, badly injured, is shipped back to the United States.

All this adds up to a thrilling story. What makes it more significant is the struggle of the Kid to overcome the fear—a new word to him—which his injury has left in him…. The Kid's triumph over his fear, his final realization that "all we have to fear is fear itself,"...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

[In "Highpockets" Tunis explores the problems of Cecil (Highpockets) McDade.] He was a brilliant right fielder…. but it was very evident he was more interested in his batting average and a good contract than in the team. No one knew that behind his stinginess and his crass ambition lay a determination to reclaim a run-down North Carolina farm and to educate five brothers and sisters…. [He] went his stubborn, lonely way until he accidentally injured a boy…. [As] young Dean fought for his life Highpockets forgot his importance and his future security to discover the meaning of teamwork in personal relationships and on the diamond.

Perhaps because of the very tempo of Mr. Tunis' slashing,...

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Mary Gould Davis

["Highpockets"] is a character study that sets it apart from Mr. Tunis's earlier books. We find here a more mellowed and sensitive writer. [Cecil McDade] is projected into the spotlight of the baseball world too soon for his own good. He is a curious mixture of personal ambition, almost total ignorance of the ways of the world, and an insensitiveness that makes him extremely unpopular with the Dodger fans. He is so well drawn that the reader becomes exasperated with him, and curiously sorry for him. The change in Cecil, or Highpockets as he is known to his jeering public, comes through his concern for a [little boy] whom he injures through careless driving. Slowly the surface hardness, the selfishness of this awkward...

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Louise S. Bechtel

The studies of character and of citizenship in [Tunis's] popular books lead inevitably to new fields, [and in "Son of the Valley" it is the building of the T.V.A.] Mr. Tunis has made the relation of one antagonistic family and one hardworking boy to the whole great effort … so real that his readers in far different places will be absorbed.

The lead-up to the day when the Heiskells [and Johnny] must leave their farm, which must be flooded, and the relation of the government to their departure is moving and dramatic….

As real as Johnny is his young sister…. [Her reactions] to selling her [pet calf] are splendidly told. (p. 6)

Louise S....

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Ellen Lewis Buell

[Mr. Tunis] has ever been concerned with the working-out of democratic ideals in American life…. [In "Son of the Valley" he explores] the significance of a great democratic experiment: that of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The experiences of the Heiskell family … typify those of many a farming family of that region. Here is seen that deep love of the land, the fierce resentment of government authority, the rock-ribbed opposition to innovation…. It was a back-breaking struggle, but in the end the most stubborn old-timer acknowledged the benefits of TVA.

All of this is so true in essence, so far-reaching in its implications that one wishes this were a better story....

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Howard Pease

One secret of Mr. Tunis' popularity is his ability to write a sports story that is more than a sports story. He discards the old formula to write about people who happen to move in the world of sports. The drama in ["Young Razzle"] arises from a conflict between … a father and son, both professional ball players.

Young Joe Nugent, the product of a split home, hates his father, who is a stranger to him…. How the relationship between these two slowly changes makes a warm-hearted story, written with intensity and understanding. The background is filled with fascinating sidelights on big time baseball….

Howard Pease, "Drama on the Diamond," in The New...

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Henry B. Lent

["The Other Side of the Fence" is the story of Robin Longe's trip across the country.] Some of his experiences as a hitchhiker have a slightly nightmarish quality. Others are wonderful and exciting…. John R. Tunis, with his usual skill and deep understanding of what makes a teenager tick, has given us another story that youngsters will enjoy immensely and that many a parent will find instructive.

Henry B. Lent, "Hitchhiker," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1953, p. 12.

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Raymond Swing

[Tunis is] the only outstanding writer in the [sports] field who can make fair play compete for interest with winning a game…. Mr. Tunis is not overtly a missionary for democracy and refuses to preach. But his best books take up such issues as racial discrimination and individual integrity, and no boy can read them without sharpened perceptions about his own values and without realizing that Americanism is something that begins inside himself in his relations with his comrades.

Though his "Son of the Valley" is about the TVA, most of the Tunis books are about a single sport. They follow a pattern used in most sport books for boys. They are written crisply, the story has to move, there is not much...

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Anne Izard

Buddy, the captain and short stop of his elementary school team, has to learn the hard way that winning is not all important and bad sportsmanship is infectious [in "Buddy and the Old Pro"]….

There is good baseball and a sound philosophy integral to the storytelling. As always, Tunis keeps his book full of action and excitement building toward a climax that never loses touch with reality.

Anne Izard, "For the Boys," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1955, p. 6.

John Tunis has a vital thesis [in The American Way in Sport], and uses his...

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Robert Daley

[Tunis] has always been a man of strong convictions. But few would have supposed convictions as strong, fearless and iconoclastic as those propounded in ["The American Way in Sport"].

This is not a book for boys, although they might profitably read it. It is for those adults willing to think deeply and seriously about the mighty force which sports exert in the life of the nation, a force which, according to Mr. Tunis, is destroying us physically and morally as a people. Thus he asks if Little League baseball … [does] not stimulate "the ego of the youngster (and Daddy), besides increasing the acquisitive traits of a boy in an acquisitive society."…

Mr. Tunis suggests abolishing...

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Dan Wakefield

When the verdict was read on the famous Chicago Black Sox scandal, a tearful, unknown urchin broke through the crowd to "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, one of the players accused of throwing the World Series, and, the story goes, made an appeal that has since become a classic line in American history: "Say it ain't so, Joe; say it ain't so."

John R. Tunis, a writer who has followed sports in our time since the turn of the century and kept his faith in its virtues intact through the Black Sox scandal, has [in "The American Way in Sport"] set down a verdict of his own so deep in its condemnation and sincerity that any young sports-loving lad might approach him with a tearful request to "say it ain't so, John;...

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William Jay Jacobs

Whether wars really are lost or won on the playing field is of course debatable. Still, few persons would deny that important lessons sometimes may be learned there. John R. Tunis, now in his seventies, has written about sport as it relates to the larger questions of life in some two thousand articles and a score of books perennially popular with young people…. The qualities Tunis prizes—courage, persistence, teamwork, the evaluation of people according to merit instead of race or religion or social class—underlie his books….

Tunis' appeal is to those who want simply to read exciting sports stories. Whatever "message" he imparts comes through vivid incidents and realistic characterizations....

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Gilbert Millstein

It is a little unusual for an author of boys' books to engage himself in the argument of a moral proposition any stronger than, say, one concerned with sportsmanship as exemplified in the homilies of the late Grantland Rice, or the salutory effects of telling the truth. But John R. Tunis, who is obviously a highly moral man and one equally troubled by the rising tide of brutality in the world, has attempted something more [in "His Enemy, His Friend"]: an examination of conscience arising out of an incident in World War II.

On the whole, he has brought it off, even though he has had to depend here and there on the conjunction of a couple of outrageous coincidences. Young people are not so apt to...

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Gerald Gottlieb

[His Enemy, His Friend is concerned with] a severe crisis of conscience…. [The] crisis literally involves human life; the young protagonist, a German soldier in Occupied France during World War II, is ordered to kill six innocent hostages as reprisal for an unknown Resistance sniper's act. What happens then—and what happens 20 years later when the German faces the son of one of the hostages in an international soccer match—provides a sharp, sardonic view of war's sad effect on the ethics of decent folk. Mr. Tunis has written many fine sports stories for young people, and his tense account of a World Cup soccer match is knowledgeable and exciting. He unfortunately flaws his book with some excessive...

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Alleen Pace Nilsen

His Enemy, His Friend is a fitting capstone to John Tunis's long years of doing first-rate sports stories for teenage readers. While there is a magnificent account of a soccer game in the book, it is basically not a sports story. The author says it is the story of a man and his conscience. It raises the eternal dilemma of the individual faced with a conflict between what the inner self thinks is right as opposed to what society demands….

This story not only has a high interest level, but also considers fundamental moral issues…. (p. 91)

Alleen Pace Nilsen, in English Journal (copyright © 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English),...

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Zena Sutherland

[The plot of Grand National] is predictable—despite obstacles, [the hero's horse] wins the race, and the heavy hints of romance between Jack [the hero] and an Englishwoman who works with sick or injured horses ends with a last-page proposal. The story plods, the writing is mediocre in style, and it seems improbable that any reader but the steeplechase buff will find it appealing. (pp. 151-52)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1974 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), May, 1974.

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