Hey hey, it's the Summer Olympics! That time when I sit on my comfy chair and watch mind-bending performances by humans from all over the world with more athletic ability in their pinky fingers than I've ever had in my whole life. These folks are incredibly inspiring, aren't they? You might find yourself wanting to join a gym, or read a fantastic book about the trials and tribulations of a young female football player! Well then, my fellow armchair athlete bibliophiles, you definitely want to get your hands on Britta Lundin's “Like Other Girls.”
Our star, Mara Deeble, starts out in trouble: The six-foot-two basketball player gets kicked off her team for fighting. Coach says the only way she'll be allowed back is if she can join another sport and demonstrate her ability to work with a team without letting her anger get the best of her. Cross country is too solitary and volleyball is too centered around tight clothing and makeup, so Mara decides to try out for football. Most of her guy friends (and her brother, Noah) are on the team. She's already physically bigger than most of them anyway, and she's up for the athletic challenge.
But in small-town Elkhorn, Oregon, Mara's simple decision becomes a statement. A group of girls decides to try out for football as well, including Valentina, Mara's crush, and Carly, Mara's loud-mouth nemesis who got her kicked out of basketball in the first place. The girls' presence complicates Mara's friendship with her brother and her best friend Quinn. It also complicates the fact that — unlike Carly — Mara isn't out. In such a small town with a lack of role model diversity, it's difficult enough for Mara to have words for the kind of person she wants to be and the kind of person she wants to love. Expressing any of that to her family and friends is a whole other can of worms, and she's already breaking her mother's heart by not being the perfect "little girl."
At her job stacking manure at the True Value, Mara meets a newcomer in town, a lesbian named Jupiter. Jupiter helps Mara to realize that she has options, and that there is no one correct way to be a person, a girl, or a lesbian. Mara can be feminine or not, depending on the day. She can choose whatever religion she wants. She can have whatever pronouns she wants. She can go after any sport she wants to play. But whatever choice she makes, she must understand the societal pitfalls attached to each thing, and decide whether or not those are things she is willing to deal with. Like football.
Meanwhile, her once-distant friendships with the girls who have decided to join football begin to blossom. It becomes quickly apparent that coach is so dismissive of these young women that he can't be bothered to explain how to do things — but he's happy to scold them when they inevitably fail. So they ask Mara to fill in the blanks for them, and in doing so, they all learn their strengths, and how to play to them.
The sheer power exhibited by these female-identifying students brought to mind the behind-the-scenes stories of “GLOW,” and how hardcore training for this Netflix wrestling series empowered the actresses both physically and mentally. A true bonding experience for the group. In real life Elkhorns, there are few opportunities for girls to train this hard, to push and growl and run to exhaustion and do it all over again, letting out their pent-up aggression in this most basic of ways. Lundin not-so-subtly reminds us that Mara isn't the only young woman walking around with the constant desire to punch someone.
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I loved this book on all its different levels. Like the fans and fellow female players in “Like Other Girls,” I was incredibly inspired by Mara's story of inner and outer growth. Life is worth the challenge. Picking which battles to fight doesn't mean giving in. And we can be whoever we want to be!
Though I suspect I won't be qualifying for the Olympics anytime soon.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
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