If you’re reading SI Kids, chances are that you really like to read about sports. I like to read about sports too, and I love books by John Feinstein, Cal Ripken, Matt Christopher, Mike Lupica, Jake Maddox and others. I recently added one more name to my list of favorite sports writers: D.C. Freedman. His book Born to Play is the first in his Jamie Johnson series, and it had me flipping pages faster than lightning.
Born to Play is about a 10-year old boy who has to drop everything and move to England. He doesn’t really fit in and the kids pick on him. But he finds a way to fight back. He uses soccer (or what they call football) to build his confidence and, ultimately, a new life for himself. It’s a story about sports, perseverance, and overcoming challenges.
I loved the book, but I’m not the only one. Brad Friedel (aka “The Human Wall”) is an American goalkeeper who has played in two Olympics, three World Cups, and has had a successful career playing in Europe. He read Born to Play and was inspired by the story because it reminded him so much of his own life.
Freedman and Friedel have teamed up to get the word out on Born to Play and I recently had the opportunity to talk to them about the series. They told me where the idea for Born to Play came from, why they think kids (and adults) should read the books, and what they want to accomplish with the Jamie Johnson series.
I read a lot of sports fiction but most of the books are about football, baseball and basketball, despite the fact that so many kids play soccer. Why do you think soccer gets less attention in kids' sports books?
D.C. Freedman: I guess in the States, in a way, that’s where soccer currently is in the pecking order of adult professional sports. But the truthful answer is that I wasn’t sure, and I saw that as sometimes a failure to potentially represent the popularity of soccer. It’s also an opportunity. And I believe that there wasn’t a genuine explanation for that question. And whenever I’ve been in the States, I’ve seen the passion for soccer. I’ve seen the participation, especially among kids – among boys and girls – so I felt as though the facts in terms of soccer’s popularity were not represented by the fiction in terms of the books and that gave me an opportunity to try and fill that gap in a way.
Brad Friedel: Soccer is such an important sport nowadays in the United States amongst kids that are playing, but it is still a sport that is either number four or five when it comes to how the media deals with it and the public perception. The NFL and Major League Baseball are much bigger than soccer. Soccer might be getting on par with the NHL in certain arenas and cities and states. [Soccer] books that have come out are usually more “how to” books. Born to Play is not a “how to” book. It has a storyline and a character. It’s the fantastic start to a series, and my kids have all read it and loved it. My one daughter does not even like soccer and she loved it.
What character traits does Jamie have that remind you of other players, either stars of today or people who played a while ago?
Freedman: I’m in the fortunate position of having met and mixed with and studied and worked alongside some really fantastic players over the past 10-15 years, people like Beckham, Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi. I’ve actually met a lot of these players. The story of Jamie Johnson where he has to leave home and he has to start again and rebuild his life and find his soccer feet in a different country, that’s actually something that both Ronaldo and Messi have done. One thing that Ronaldo told me about his childhood was the fact that he was born on an island called Madeira, which is just off the mainland of Portugal. He had a decision to make. Effectively he had gone about as far as he could go in football on the island of Madeira by the age of around 11 or 12. He had a decision to make. He left home. He left his parents to go to the mainland of Portugal when he was around 11 or 12. You can imagine how difficult that would be for someone leaving home at such a young age. But you can also imagine how determined, ambitious, hard-working and how much of a backbone and character you have to develop in order to make that choice a success. And Jamie Johnson has a similar journey to go through. It’s those kinds of attributes and difficulties and habits and characteristics that I look at in the very, very best players and that I want Jamie to inhabit, both so that it’s realistic but also so that it’s kind of an inspiration to other kids reading the book.
Friedel: I’ve played with a lot of players where you’re sitting there in the changing room or the locker room and [someone] comes up to you and says, “You’re traded now and you have to move to another city now.” And those players don’t like that. They’ve got to then move and they become the ones that have to meet a whole new set of teammates and a whole new set of friends. They have to prove themselves to fans. [Like those players,] Jamie Johnson is meeting a whole new life. And it’s not easy to do.
Brad, Jamie had some transition issues when he moved to England. What were some of the cultural differences that you had to overcome in moving to England yourself?
Friedel: The food, for one! The weather, for two! I lived up in the north of England, the northwest in Manchester for a long time. And you don’t see the sun up there. You go through a lot of things. The biggest difference was that I moved to a country where soccer was the number-one sport. Soccer was the number one thing and the be all and end all to a lot of people’s lives. And when you’re walking around town and you’re shopping, you’re at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there are people who know who you are and what you’re doing and they want to talk to you. They want to know what’s going on. They want to know why you played well. They want to know why you didn’t play well. It is an interesting transition time to take all that in, don’t get a big head, don’t get too down when someone says you’re bad. Keep a level head. It takes some time to adapt to that. That’s the biggest change.
When you read this book, did you imagine yourself as the main character, Jamie? Did some of Jamie's experiences bring you back to different points in your life?
Friedel: Yes, the moving around definitely did. I had some instances in my life where I protected friends from bullying situations, so that definitely did. I quickly thought about myself as Jamie Johnson because I was meeting with D.C. and we were discussing the series and how we can relate it to the United States. So you have to change some words and you might have to change some sporting events. Again, I’m not going to give away the future books, but some life lessons from myself and friends and other stories will be incorporated in the book. I’ve thrown myself straight into it.
D.C., when you came up for the idea for the Jamie Johnson series, did you come up with Jamie as a character first or the story line?
Freedman: The first thing is I wanted a series that had soccer at its heart. The second part, the character, took about three years to evolve. I’ve never written a novel before. I’ve worked in soccer and I’ve written non-fiction journalistic pieces about it. I’ve traveled to World Cups. But I’ve never written a novel. And, actually, I made a mistake when I started my career as a novelist. I thought that because I was writing or attempting to write for kids, that I should write a story with a main character that never did anything wrong so that kids would behave better having read the book, and that they would have a role model of someone to look up to. But the truth is that no kids never do anything wrong. None of us are angels. And from a point of view of writing a novel, none of us wants to read a book about an angel who never does anything wrong because it would be incredibly boring. And that was my own journey – it’s a bit like Jamie’s journey in reaching the top of soccer. My journey was one of learning in writing that good stories are about characters that we can relate to as much through their challenges, their shortcomings, their difficulties and their flaws as through their talents and abilities.
What do you think the appeal of a soccer novel is for kids today? Do you think the average American elementary school age kid can relate well to the main character in the Jamie Johnson series?
Freedman: I think so. I’ve visited schools in Virginia and in New York and I absolutely found that they were keen to read the books. But I think that you’re right to talk about the character Jamie Johnson because I think that, really, any good story is about the character and caring about the character. And although we just talked about soccer and how much I absolutely love soccer, I don’t think that that’s enough to carry a good book. If you’re just reading about a kid – a boy or a girl – trying to score a goal or trying to save a shot, it’s not going to really draw you in as a reader. The truth is that it has to be a good story outside the boundaries of sport. And hopefully that’s what we’ve created with Jamie Johnson – a character that draws you in, that you care about, that you relate to, and that you want to follow on their journey.
Friedel: That’s the best thing that D.C. has done with the book. The trials and tribulations that Jamie Johnson goes through in life, it doesn’t have to correlate necessarily with soccer. Anyone can have the ups and downs that Jamie Johnson had. There’s a lot of storyline about friendship and companionship, confidence issues, bullying issues. That happens in everyday life. We all go through it. I went through it. You’ll go through it. And all adolescents and teenagers go through it. I think that is what caught my eye when I read it.
D.C., what advice would you give to kids who want to be a writer, either a novelist or a journalist?
Freedman: Start writing as soon as you can. Don’t expect the first thing that you do to be the finished article. Read as much as you can. Find people who you admire and try and understand what it is about the way that they are writing that you so admire and try to replicate and be inspired by those techniques that they employ. And enjoy what you are writing because whether it is journalism or writing a novel, that comes across to the reader.
Click here to read an excerpt from Born to Play, the first book in the Jaime Johnson series! And check out D.C. Freedman's website to learn more about the books!
Photos: Joe Talbot, Short Form Film Co. (Freedman), Jennifer Ferguson (cover), Nick Wass/AP (Friedel)