In the 12 years that Michael Northrop spent working at Sports Illustrated Kids, he met excellent athletes who had a lot more going on in their lives than just sports.
"They were young athletes, but they were also kids, so I didn't want to forget about that," he tells NPR's Michele Norris.
So he wrote a book called Plunked, about a 12-year-old baseball player named Jack Mogens — and his life both on and off the field. The story begins at the outset of Jack's last year of Little League. During the first game of the season, Jack gets hit in the head with a fastball. Northrop says it's a comeback story, but not in the traditional sports sense.
"He loves baseball," Northrop says. "His world is sort of built around it — and that relationship is shaken and he needs to come to terms with that and try and sort of step back up to the plate."
On the way Jack collects baseball cards with his dad
That was a sort of proxy in a lot of ways for the role that tradition plays in baseball — it is probably the most tradition-bound [sport]. In the same way he could open a crisp new pack of cards at the start of every baseball season with his dad, it was a way to literalize the role baseball played in their lives. It was something they could both see, both touch, both have a strong connection to, and his dad had been doing this since before he came along and now he was doing it with his son. ... When he sees those cards later when he's really struggling, it's a touchstone for him. It's a way to remember the role that baseball played in his life.
On what Northrop liked to read when he was 10
I was a very reluctant reader early on. I'm dyslexic so I repeated second grade, and I spent that second year in second grade just reading and rereading the same few "Dick and Jane" books over and over again. I sort of had to slowly find things that worked for me in terms of reading. ... [At age 10] I had probably just begun to read the first Dungeons and Dragons books.
On the moment he decided to become a writer
There was a poetry contest in probably sixth grade. ...The thing about poetry if you're a very slow reader is that it's very short and so when we had to write things, I would write poetry. It's a lot less words and it rewards slow, careful reading, which is the only kind I'm capable of; I can't read fast. I can read carefully, though. And so that moment when I got a little manila certificate ... for first place in my grade for poetry was probably the moment when I started thinking: I could do this; I could be a writer.
Next up for the Backseat Book Club: In October, we turn to Roald Dahl — the only author to have three books on our Ultimate Backseat Bookshelf. Matilda is the story of an exceptionally gifted girl who outsmarts her cruel parents and the brutish school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, with the help of her magical abilities and her kind teacher Miss Honey. With vivacious drawings by Quentin Blake, the story celebrates Matilda's love of books, and the joy they bring to her absurdly dark world. Please send us your questions about Matilda, or tweet your questions to @nprbackseat.
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It's time once again for NPR's Backseat Book Club. This month, we give a nod to baseball, to all the big leaguers now playing and the little leaguers who dream of the Majors. The book is "Plunked" by Michael Northrop.
NPR's Michele Norris gives us the play-by-play.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
All epic sports tales have one thing in common: Their humanity, whether it's the story of big-hearted football player Rudy...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RUDY")
SEAN ASTIN: (as Rudy) I wanted to run out of that tunnel, for my dad, to prove to everyone that I worked...
CHARLES S. DUTTON: (as Fortune) Prove what? Your five feet nothing, a hundred and nothing, and you got hardly a spec of athletic ability and you hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years.
NORRIS: ...or the down-on-his-luck boxer, Rocky.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ROCKY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, Rocky.
NORRIS: What draws fans in and keeps them there is the how these stories get to the hearts of their characters. The same is true for a children's book by Michael Northrop called "Plunked." Yes, it's a baseball book. But it's also about a 12-year-old boy, Jack Mogens, and his relationship with his friends, his parents, and his life off the field.
Author Michael Northrop sets up the story.
MICHAEL NORTHROP: A young baseball player who's in his last year of little league who, in the first game of the season, gets hit in the head with a pitch. And so, it's a comeback story in a sports sense but the comeback is: He loves baseball, his world is sort of built around it, and that relationship is shaken and he needs to come to terms with that and try and sort of step back up to the plate.
NORRIS: That blow to the head by a fastball is why the story is called "Plunked." And here's 11-year-old Alex Holmes reading from that fateful section of the book.
ALEX HOLMES: (Reading) His arm comes up and forward, and the ball is out and headed toward the plate. But something is wrong. The pitch is high and bearing in. It's a fastball and suddenly I know I'm going to get hit - going to get hit in the head. All I have time to do is flinch and then it's like an explosion, so much sound and power. It's like when a thunderstorm is right on top of you, when the lightening and the thunder come at the same time. I'm knocked off my feet at the same instant I hear the crack.
NORRIS: Michael Northrop spent 12 years at the Sports Illustrated special magazine for kids. There, he met lots of great young athletes who had more going on in their lives than just sports.
NORTHROP: I wanted to, in this case, just portray just the whole person because that is something that was sort of reinforced to me time and time again. When I talked to these kids at Sports Illustrated Kids, covering events - any thing like that - that they were young athletes but they were also kids. And so I didn't want to forget about that.
NORRIS: I have to say, I loved his relationship with his parents, especially his dad and the thing they did with the baseball cards.
NORTHROP: That was a sort of proxy in a lot of ways for the role that tradition plays in baseball. It is probably the most tradition-bound. You know, in the same way he could open a crisp new pack of cards at the start of every baseball season with his dad. It was a way to literalize the role baseball played in their lives. It was something they could both see, both touch, both have a strong connection to. And his dad had been doing this since before he came along and now he was doing it with his son.
He had that prized Cal Ripken, Jr. card. You know, when he sees those cards later, when he's really struggling, it's a touchstone for him. It's a way to remember the role that baseball played in his life.
NORRIS: And as you read that scene, you can almost taste the fossilized bubblegum...
NORRIS: ...that comes in some of those cards.
NORTHROP: That is...
NORTHROP: It's one of those experiences you never quite - I would say you never forget. And in sense, I think recover might be a better term. Like the first time you innocently put the - 'cause it looks pink. It looks like bubblegum and...
NORRIS: It's not about the gum.
NORTHROP: And then you put that thing in your mouth and its like - ugh, it tastes worst than the cards. And it's, yeah.
NORRIS: We have a question from a listener.
ANDREA LOPAMAN: Hi. My name is Andrea Lopaman(ph) from Glendale, Missouri. I am 10 years old and loves to read whatever I can get my hands on. When you were 10 years old what did you like to read? And what was your favorite book? Also, how old were you when you decided you were going to be an author?
NORTHROP: Fantastic question, unusual answer I feel like for that. I'm a - I was a very reluctant reader early on. I'm dyslexic and so I repeated second grade. And I spent that second year in second grade just reading and rereading the same few "Dick and Jane" books over and over again. I sort of had to slowly find things that worked for me in terms of reading.
And to answer Andrea's question, I think what I was reading at that point, I think I had probably just begun to read the first "Dungeons and Dragons" books...
NORRIS: And when did you decide to be a writer?
NORTHROP: I decided to be a writer, you know, there was a poetry contest in probably sixth grade, I think.
NORRIS: That's like saying, I'm going to learn how to cook and first I'm going to make a souffle.
NORTHROP: Well, the thing about poetry if you're a very slow reader, and very slow, is that it's very short. And so, when we had to write things, I would write poetry. It's a lot less words and it rewards slow, careful reading, which is the only kind I'm capable of really. I can't read fast and so I can read carefully, though. And so, that moment when I got like a little manila certificate basically for first place in my grade for poetry was probably the moment when I started thinking I could do this, I could be a writer.
NORRIS: That was author Michael Northrop, whose real-life story of overcoming dyslexia is nearly as remarkable as his fictional tale about Jack Mogens getting "Plunked."
And we're changing gears for our next book to the classic writer Roald Dahl, the only author to have three books on our NPR's Ultimate Backseat Bookshelf. We're Reading "Matilda," to celebrate her love of books and how they brought joy to her absurdly dark world.
Send your questions to backseatbookclub@NPR.org or tweet us @nprbackseat.
Happy reading, Michele Norris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.