Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la Peña
Published 2005 by Random House Children's
280 pages, YA contemporary fiction
In case you didn't see my January round-up, you might want to start by reading this NPR essay by de la Peña himself. In it, he talks about how in his second year of college, a place he reached via a basketball scholarship, a professor handed him what ended up being the first book he ever finished. When it blew him away, the professor helped him articulate what was so beautiful about what is in many ways a painful work (you'll have to read the essay to find out which book it is!)--"Even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, she explained, there's still hope."
I'm a middle aged white suburban lady, so maybe I am not the best judge, but I've also worked with at-risk teens for the better part of twenty years, and I am always astounded by how well de la Peña captures teen voices. It never sounds like an adult trying to write "cool." It sounds like kids talking to each other, joking, arguing, chatting, wooing, posturing, sharing, questioning.
Yesterday I finished another book I loved reading, Cherie Priest's I Am Princess X, and it took me awhile to decide if I wanted to rate it four or five stars. I loved every minute of it, but ultimately decided on 4 stars. Ball Don't Lie helped illuminate the difference between the two.
First, de la Peña doesn't just capture dialogue well, he writes with the heart of a poet. It's more distilled in the Newbery Award winning Last Stop on Market Street, but it rings through in the patterns of the chapters, in the lyrical descriptions of the characters' motivations for joining the street ball games at the LA gym, in the repetition of motifs and patterns, from Sticky's yo-yoing back and forth between group home and foster care, to his obsessive tics, and to the way the skinny white kid is tested and then welcomed into a place that is the closest thing he has to home.
Next, the themes of this book are so rich. Sticky has a lot going against him (as Dante beautifully illustrates with carefully placed stones), and just when things start looking up, everything gets worse. I was talking to myself while reading the last few chapters--"Oh God no, please no, oh NO Sticky, oh this is a disaster, please don't do this!" De la Peña knows, as we all do, that sometimes having a good heart, or even a good heart and a special talent, aren't always going to be enough to make a good life. Sticky's progress is fragile, his potential huge but uncertain. Luckily for my own heart, de la Peña remembers to leave us with that hope.
In the end, it's not his basketball skills that are going to save Sticky's life and soul. It's love, even though he's had to scrabble all his life to get any. It's respect, not for his ball handling skills, but for his heart. It's learning that he deserves these gifts whether he is a star ball player or not.