Themes in Young Adult Literature: Sports

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2760

Titles Discussed

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers

Heart of a Champion by Carl Deuker

Thematic Overview

Sports have been a part of every human culture, ranging from leisure (croquet) to martial training (fencing). It follows that sports, which are structured forms of...

(The entire section contains 2760 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers

Heart of a Champion by Carl Deuker

Thematic Overview

Sports have been a part of every human culture, ranging from leisure (croquet) to martial training (fencing). It follows that sports, which are structured forms of play, should be so important to adolescents. Which teams teenagers follow and what sports they play often informs their identities, as, for many young adults, sports are both their entertainment and pastime.

Before the advent of the YA novel, the literary canon did not often concern itself with sports and games. However, as YA novels have increased in popularity and are aimed at teenagers, probably the most likely demographic to play sports on a regular basis, sports have become a more popular subject. This popularity can be linked to a general push to get boys to read, since a book about something they like—basketball, for instance—is likely to catch their attention.

The rise of sports as a subject of YA novels has also coincided with wider attention paid to athletes. Going back to baseball heroes such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, all the way to modern celebrity athletes such as Michael Jordan and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, popular culture has been interested in sports and the people who play them. This creates a more casual audience for novels in the genre, as opposed to the more coverage-based sports writing found in newspapers and online. In long form, such as YA novels, sports stories become about the personalities of athletes and the struggles they face in their personal lives. These stories are then related to athletic success. Furthermore, through sports, stories may also examine social and political issues.

While sports stories are about more than simply sports, these stories do lend themselves to a handful of themes suited to the subject. Many of these are perfect for the YA audience, as most readers can identify with underdog stories, the need to persevere, and the tensions of balancing school, hobbies, friends, and family. The values of sports—such as physical strength, endurance, and focus—mirror the characters' internal growth in these same areas. Teams are microcosms of society, coaches become parental figures, and winning represents becoming a well-rounded person.

Sports, then, serve as a group of metaphors in YA literature. In Darius & Twig (2013), both track and writing are used as metaphors for the struggle to succeed despite racial and economic encumbrances. The titular characters try to excel at their fields while trying to survive inner-city life. Dairy Queen (2006) frames sports, specifically football, as a way of forming identity both outside gender norms (its main character is a girl on the football team) and as part of a family, since her older brothers were also football players. Heart of a Champion (1993) is less interested in using baseball as a metaphor than using the most American of sports to typify all-American kids. While baseball plays a large role in the novel, the true message is a warning against the dangers of substance abuse.


Murdock's Dairy Queen uses sports to promote hard work, humility, gender equality, and individuality. Darlene Joyce “D. J.” Schwenk, the protagonist of Dairy Queen, is a fifteen-year-old girl burdened with the responsibility of keeping her family dairy farm running while living under the shadow of her football-star brothers. D. J. works hard, complains little, and does what she is told. In a sense, she is like a mindless cow trudging through life among the herd. She “started thinking that maybe everyone in the whole world was just like a cow, and we all go along doing what we're supposed to without complaining or even really noticing, until we die.”

D. J. is asked to train Brian, the quarterback of the rival high school football team. She realizes she does not want to be like a cow and longs to play football. At first she does not consider playing football herself, but as she practices with Brian on her handmade football field, she realizes what she really wants to do is try out for her own school's team.

D. J.'s friends and family praise her for her ability to work hard, but Brian criticizes her for allowing her family to take advantage of her hard work around the farm. D. J. wants to do the right thing and help her family, but her family is unable to see how much her work costs her emotionally, mentally, and academically. D. J. is depressed, frustrated, and failing her classes. She does not want to work on the farm forever but resigns herself to her fate. She feels she is too dumb to get into college, and she cannot get football scholarships like her brothers.

D. J. and Brian are able to help each other. D. J. helps Brian improve his work ethic, train harder, and take responsibility for his mistakes. Brian helps D. J. to see she is living “like a cow” by following the herd and worrying about meeting expectations. Their friendship gives D. J. the confidence to pursue her dreams. Consequently, she stands up to her parents, cuts her hair to fit under a football helmet, and tries out for the football team.

D. J. defies gender norms by making the team without much trouble, as every team member but one is happy to have her on the team. Her brothers' reputations for football prowess and work ethic precedes her. The real emotional issues surface when Brian discovers D. J. has made the team. Brian feels betrayed, thinking she helped him over the summer only to gain information on his playing style. The two make amends, but their friendship does not change their rivalry. Dairy Queen is largely about how shared experiences create bonds between people.

Darius & Twig tells the story of two teenage boys making a name for themselves so they can leave Harlem and lead better lives. Darius, an African American, and Twig, a Dominican American, both grew up marginalized by the larger culture and in a community as familiar with sounds of gunshots as the honking of car horns. One of Darius's short stories is about to be published in a literary magazine, and he hopes to get a college scholarship. Twig is a record-breaking runner who wants a scholarship so he can escape the inner city.

Rather than encouraging Darius and Twig, authority figures try to get them to quit. Darius's guidance counselor tells him that he does not have shot at a scholarship. Twig's uncle wants him to work for free in his bodega. Both boys are targeted by gang members who mug and bully them.

The story Darius hopes will earn him a scholarship is about a boy with a crippled leg who tries to swim out to a distant island. The boy nearly drowns during his first attempt but is rescued by dolphins. At the end of the story the boy tries one last time to reach the island, but it is unclear if he drowns or is again rescued. The magazine editors tell Darius they want to publish his story but need to know the end of the story. Darius searches for the answer throughout the novel by drawing from his own experiences.

When Twig reads the final draft he says, “Now the story is clearer because the kid is looking for something inside of himself, and that's what it's all about … I like the fact that at the end, he still has a bad leg and stuff isn't just wonderful. He's still got all the problems in his life and he's still got to deal with them.” Thus, the story Darius that has written parallels his own life.

Darius's mother accuses him of living vicariously through Twig's athletic achievements, but he does not care. Darius feels that if Twig can succeed and build a good life for himself then so can he. He refuses to let Twig give up even though Twig draws unwanted attention to himself because of his athletic ability. In Twig's case, bullies pay attention to him when he succeeds in track, much as they do to Darius when his writing is noticed. For them, success is not wealth or fame but getting out of a neighborhood where gang violence in rampant.

Heart of a Champion is a simple but heart-wrenching story that uses high school baseball as a framing device for the relationship between two boys and focuses on the dangers of drinking alcohol. Seth, the narrator, meets Jimmy while the latter and his dad are playing baseball. Jimmy's dad is training him, and Seth is shocked by how strict and critical he is of his son. They ask Seth to play, and he is relieved when Jimmy's dad is friendly and helpful toward him.

Jimmy explains that his dad is so hard on him because he wants him to be the best he can be. While harsh, the tactics used by Jimmy's dad seem to be working. Jimmy is indeed a talented baseball player and could realistically play in the majors. Seth decides he wants to be serious about baseball too and spends the rest of his teenage years trying to catch up to Jimmy's skill.

For the most part, jealousy does not come between the boys, except for a few minor instances, such as when Jimmy becomes angry when Seth hits a home run. The larger problems occur when Seth and Jimmy begin to drink beer at a teammate's house. A few beers quickly turn into a lot more for Jimmy. This surprises Seth because of Jimmy's discipline when it comes to baseball. Jimmy's dad is an alcoholic and has been known to drive after drinking. Despite promising Seth to prioritize school and baseball, Jimmy begins to emulate his father's behavior.

Jimmy's coach catches him drinking and suspends him from the team. When Jimmy's suspension is up, he drinks again. This worries Seth. Their coach has a “three strikes” rule that jeopardizes Jimmy's place on the team.

Jimmy does not get another chance: he dies in a drunk-driving accident before the team's championship game. The team decides to play despite their grief and dedicates the game to Jimmy. The people around Jimmy thought only “bad kids” drink and drive, but they learn that even stars such as Jimmy can suffer an addictive personality.

Seth is left to question the role of death in his life. He thinks of both his late father and Jimmy, and he contemplates his own death. He realizes death does not have to make sense. It can happen to the young or old, sick or healthy. There is no explanation for why some people die while others live. Death, like life, is unfair.

Heart of a Champion teaches readers to identify risky behavior and urges readers to talk about difficult issues rather than dismiss them, even if talking about them causes trouble. While it was not Seth's responsibility to ensure that Jimmy not drink, he could have told their coach or parents what was going on so that Jimmy could get help.

While all three novels differ greatly, they do contain some similarities, such as their emphasis on family. In Dairy Queen, D. J. does not expect her family to support her decision to play football, but having them do so makes her feel valued and loved. Twig needs the support of his uncle but does not always receive it. Jimmy does not have much positive support from his family, even when it might have saved his life.


The importance of sports in YA literature lies not in the sports themselves but in what they are used to talk about. Sports open up avenues for dialog about family, economic disparity, and camaraderie, among many other topics.

In each of these novels, the protagonists weigh their responsibilities to their teammates with those they have toward their families, finding ways to belong in these support systems. In Dairy Queen, D. J. balances her responsibilities on her family's farm with those of her football team. Twig, whose sport is an individual one, has to decide to pursue either track or working for his uncle in his bodega. Jimmy chooses to emulate his father's destructive behavior instead of embracing the friendships of his baseball team.

In these novels, sports invite the reader to understand these characters' lives better through the simplification of games. Teammates, like families, depend on each other. This means sticking up for one another in the face of difficulty or injustice, be it the chauvinism D. J. faces from an opposing team or the pressures on Twig to quit track.

Sports provide characters with a place to belong and to assert their identity. While characters rely on their teammates, they ultimately learn to rely on themselves. Their responsibilities and athleticism spur them to follow their own desires, rather than what people expect of them. Sports are the crucible that equips these characters to survive the challenging aspects of life.

All three novels portray the reality of marginalized people using athletics to gain social capital. While D. J. will probably never make money playing football after high school, she still benefits emotionally from knowing she pursued her dream. Twig is able to use his speed and perseverance to gain the attention of college scouts and become something more than a bodega owner or a gang member. Seth and Jimmy use baseball to improve themselves. Jimmy does not want to just be a great baseball player; he wants to be the best person he can be.

Even with their emphasis on athletics, all three novels make clear that education is just as important as sports. D. J. must pass her English classes in order to play on the team; Darius and Twig must do well in school to be considered for scholarships; and Seth manages to keep up good grades in all AP classes while also playing baseball. Jimmy's coach reprimands him for slacking on his studies and tells him to bring up his grade point average or be forced off the team. In American culture, academics and athletics are assumed to go together, and students are taught that higher education is a way to reach success. In most cases, as these novels show, sports are a way to reach a new tier of learning.

Further Reading

  • Conniff, Ruth. “‘Dairy Queen,’ by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.” Rev. of Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. New York Times. New York Times, 18 June 2006. Web. 11 June 2015. <>.
  • “Darius and Twig.” Rev. of Darius & Twig, by Walter Dean Myers. Kirkus Reviews 15 Mar. 2013: 111. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 June 2015. <>.
  • Schafer, Elizabeth D. “Carl Deuker.” Guide to Literary Masters and Their Works (2007): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 11 June 2015. <>.


  • Brown, Alan, and Chris Crowe. “Ball Don't Lie: Connecting Adolescents, Sports, And Literature.” ALAN Review 41.1 (2013): 76–80. Education Research Complete. Web. 12 June 2015. <>.
  • Crowe, Chris. More than a Game: Sports Literature for Young Adults. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2004. Print.
  • Eitle, Tamela McNulty. “Race, Cultural Capital, and the Educational Effects of Participation in Sports.” Sociology of Education 75.2 (2002): 123–46. FRANCIS. Web. 11 June 2015. <>.
  • Muwakkil, Salim. “Race, Sports, and the Big Bucks.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 5 July 1999. Web. 11 June 2015. <>.
  • Schneider, Dean. “What Makes A Good Sports Novel?” Horn Book Magazine 87.1 (2011): 68–72. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 June 2015. <>.
  • Tracy, Allison J. “Gender and Race Patterns in the Pathways from Sports Participation to Self-Esteem.” Sociological Perspectives 45.4 (2002): 445–46. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 11 June 2015. <>.
  • Whiteside, Erin, et al. “‘I Am Not a Cow’: Challenging Narratives of Empowerment in Teen Girls Sports Fiction.” Sociology of Sport Journal 30.4 (2013): 415–34. Education Abstracts (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 June 2015. <>.
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