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Creative Nonfiction, Diversity in Literature, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade Readers, Sports

DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang

There are a lot of things to like about Dragon Hoops. I loved the in-depth individual looks at the players of the high school basketball team whose story Yang told, as well as features on the history of basketball and women’s role in the sport. The pacing is excellent. The art and the text play off each other spectacularly in both the game-action sequences and the slower-paced conversational and observational panels.  Gifted at storytelling in both word and visual images, Yang skillfully weaves all the parts into a cohesive narrative about one particularly important season in the history of Bishop O’Dowd High School’s Boys Basketball team.

Before I get into the parts of the book that frustrate me I want to make sure I acknowledge that I don’t believe there is such a thing as a non-viable choice for an author. Each author makes their own decisions about what they do and do not include and which aspects of any character or story they decide to emphasize.

I have two issues with Dragon Hoops–neither of which have anything to do with the actual story that Yang tells(which I did enjoy). My first issue is NOT Yang’s decision to include Coach Mike Phelps in his story, but with the fact that he made the making of that decision a part of the story. Because Yang’s story is more a memoir and based on real people he needed to deal with the existence of a former coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School who left under disreputable circumstances: anonymous allegations that were eventually dismissed without ever going to court. Yang begins the story including Coach Phelps in the storyline, then ambiguously mentions to the reader that he doesn’t know if he should eliminate him from the story. Then he tells the reader he has decided to eliminate Coach Phelps from the story (even though at this point he has already included him). Then in the final quarter of the book he spends several pages and panels breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the readers in order to justify his decision to add Coach Phelps back into the story and basically beg them not to dislike him as a person or an author because of his decision. I do not follow NBA basketball(I support the WNBA), much less NCAA or high school, so I had no idea for the majority of the book what Yang kept alluding to in reference to Phelps; I finally had to google it when it kept coming up without explanation. (He does briefly explain it in that final plea to the reader.)

I understand Yang’s dilemma; I have great respect for him that it was a dilemma for him. But the context of the story itself is not the place to work through your decision. As an author, MAKE your decision; WRITE the story. Include a Foreword or Afterword to detail the reasons behind your decision if it is important to you (and it obviously was to Yang).

My second issue stems purely from my own bias. I am female; I played sports throughout my school career and I coached in the Minnesota State High School League as an adult. I have always been frustrated by the disparity between the attention and financial support at pre- and post-secondary educational institutions between male and female athletic teams. I was thrilled that Yang spends some time in Dragon Hoops on the history of women in the sport of basketball and that he debunks the common reasons given for the disparity in fan support between the genders.

The question I ask myself is “Why did Yang choose to write about the Boys Basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd instead of the Girls?” He states that the Girls Basketball Team at O’Dowd was excellent–in fact they had won championships when the Boys team hadn’t, if winning is his prerequisite to define success–not to mention if he had chosen to tell a story about the Girls team, he would never had had to deal with the issue of Coach Phelps at all. I do not think Yang is obligated to write any story other than the one he wants (or feels moved) to write–but I long for the author who writes the story of the Girls Basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd High School.

I believe wholeheartedly in the many benefits that can be gained from participating as a member of a team, collaborating and cooperating to achieve a common goal while enjoying the intense camaraderie that develops in the best circumstances. I have experienced it myself as both a player and a coach and know its value in everyday life, goal-setting and resilience–regardless of the win and loss record. Some of this philosophy is reflected in Dragon Hoops, but I am disappointed that much of its substance is focused on the literal winning and losing of a game. I am a devout believer that “winning” isn’t even close to the most important thing young people can learn from team sports. And I am aware I am in the minority, which is why I left coaching.

My disappointment with pieces of the story are rooted in my own biases and long-standing frustration with gender inequality in school athletics (my brothers, husband and son know the fastest way to send me into a rant is to even imply that women athletes are in any way less than male athletes). If you have a young reader who enjoys quality graphic novels or the sport of basketball specifically, Dragon Hoops is a magnificent reading choice.


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