Baseball and bullies rule in a comedic YA novel populated by everyday and eccentric kids.
The middle school students of this country town have a common problem, and that problem’s name is Billy Murdock. Reluctant hero Gale Wickers would like to steer clear of Billy, which looks possible until Gale’s father signs him up for Little League, and Billy Murdock is on the team. Billy is pretty sinister for a kid: He whacks dead birds with a bat, makes unnerving jokes about Gale’s mother and has strange moments of composure in organized sport. Gale’s character would benefit from some of the full development bestowed upon Billy, as Gale never finds the necessary charisma most beloved YA characters possess. But with a wide cast of freaks and geeks—the nerdy Denny, the tall tomboy Wendy, the bonnet-donning Mennonite Bekah—Gale has enough friends to outwit Billy, who quits one team for another, leading to a classic showdown on the baseball diamond. Smith’s writing occasionally caters to the grosser interests of teens, with references to vomit, chewing tobacco, poop, jock straps and female anatomy. At least the boob jokes are countered by the presence of teammates Wendy and Bekah, girls who know themselves and their baseball. The most dynamic characters come from Smith's effort to include underrepresented teens into the mix, as the deaf Alex and spiritual Bekah bring the team together. Lacking, though, is the romantic tension of a crush Gale speaks of but never acts on, a sort of place marker for the real crushes that color most adolescences. The novel maintains a terrific pace, the plot speeding through a hilarious baseball season, tightly wound by the question of what stunt Billy will try and pull next. But this pacing is also a downside; Smith’s lack of time on spent on Gale and the other characters makes them less memorable.
A quick and entertaining novel full of hijinks and sports that may be just what reluctant readers are after.