Soccer Star written by Mina Javaherbin and illustrated by Renato Alarcão is published by Candlewick Press and will be released in April of 2014.
Having a classroom full of soccer enthusiasts and children who come from many different countries, I was very curious as to what the children would notice as we read. What would stand out? What would they talk about? What would they question?
This book is set in Brazil and tells the story of young children living in poverty. Their days are full of work while their heads are full of dreams. Maybe they will be future soccer stars like Garrincha, Pelé and Ronaldo and find a way to lift their families out of poverty. The dreams give light and energy to the hardships of everyday and the evening soccer game is a treasured, shared time daily.
Renato Alarcão‘s illustrations are stunning and had the children talking right from the cover image:
“I noticed that they are playing soccer in water with bare feet. I wonder if it hurts to kick the ball?”
“The sand and ocean look so beautiful. It must be amazing to run through the waves.”
Our main character is Paulo Marcelo Feliciano (“His name is so long – he sounds like he’s famous,” one child observed). He dreams of becoming a soccer star one day and changing the future for his family. In the meantime, he looks after getting his little sister to school as his Mom heads off to work. We learn that Paulo and Maria play soccer together every night and that she teaches Paulo math from school. This page prompted lots of discussion from the students.
“Why can’t he do math?”
“Doesn’t he go to school?”
“Maybe the family only has enough money to send one child to school?”
“Hold on, what? You have to pay to go to school?”
“Maybe you don’t have to pay money. Maybe he needs to work for money.”
“But doesn’t his Mom work?”
We explored the idea through more discussion. Could it be that Paulo was not able to go to school because he had to help the family earn enough money to survive? The children were saddened by this idea. Some just couldn’t believe it.
The walk to school for Paulo and Maria is special. They dribble a soccer ball the whole way and talk about Paulo’s team. When we find out that she can’t be on the team because of the rule “No girls” there is again much discussion. One of our keen soccer players, Brian, brought up a very good point:
“They said the rule is no girls allowed. But it says that Maria can do a bicycle kick and they are very hard. She should be on the team because she is very talented.”
Brian stood up to demonstrate the concept of a bicycle kick and the comments continued.
“Whoa! does her brother even know how to do that?”
“Just because she is a girl doesn’t mean she can’t play.”
The next few pages of this story are brilliantly done. Each depicts different boys at work, always with their heads full of soccer. The children wrestled with this whole idea of children working. Could they really be working? Or was it that they were just goofing around waiting until game time? By the final boy, it had sunk in. This work was necessary for these boys and their families.
“None of them are in school.”
“Some even have to take care of their little sisters and they aren’t at school either.”
“That’s a lot of work for an older brother.”
“I don’t see any girls working here. I wonder what they would have to do?”
By the time we meet Pedro climbing coconut trees, the children don’t think this is play time.
“He’s getting the coconuts to eat!”
Paulo heads out to the fishing boats with Senhor da Silva. The children wondered what they talked about on the ocean. Did he think about soccer or did he have to concentrate on his tasks? Some worried about the small boat on the water with the dark clouds all around.
When the boat is finished for the day, all of the team helps pull it to shore and it is time for the soccer game! All the students smiled at the energy of the boys who had been working all day, all together now on the beach.
“All day they have been at work thinking and dreaming and now they get the fun of playing soccer!”
“They are running on the beach thinking they are soccer super stars like Ronaldo!”
“They look so free!”
When one of Paulo’s teammates is hurt, the students immediately began to shout that Maria should get to play. The outcome of this decision and the game is worth much celebration.
The day at the beach ends and the page is lit up with lights from all of the homes lining the hills next to the shore. I asked the children what they were thinking.
“This is my favourite page. It is so peaceful and beautiful.”
“I like that there was change. Kind of like a riddle – the change was to make no silly rules about girls and boys. Just everyone together.”
“This is a book about believing in yourself.”
“Follow your dreams.”
“Listen to your heart. Follow where it is going.”
My favourite comment might have been this one that came a few minutes later.
“Remember before when we were talking about the colours of skin in books. This is a book that does it. It shows lots of different and mixed skin colours. It seems real.”
Joyous. Uplifting. Rich material for discussion. Highly recommended.