November 23, 2014

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Doug Clarke: ‘Tis the season to buy your kid a book for a change

He was already gone when I got there. There was just the row of chairs, maybe 15 rows or so, stretching from the table where the author should have been seated to the back row. All of the chairs were empty. Two sales clerks stood behind the vacant table, putting books onto shelves.
“It`s over already? He`s gone?” I asked.
One of the girls nodded and gave me a sad smile.
“It was a terrible turnout. Maybe six people. We could have used you,” she said.
I checked my watch. Was just 7:32. Here and gone in 32 minutes. A terrible turnout, the girl had said.
Figures. The man who had been seated at the table signing books, all six of them, was a writer. Still is. We don`t do writers, or books, any more. Do TiVos and MP3 players and text messaging and Game Boys. Do things that make America what it is: fat and lazy and spoiled rotten by electronic toys.
If the man had been up there giving away the toys that make us tick – the TiVos and MP3s and cell phones that text message – you can bet all the chairs would have been filled. Heck, they would have been standing in the aisles with a line out the door at JoBeth`s Book Store.
Which is where the author Mike Lupica spent, oh — about 32 lonely minutes the other night when he was in town to speak and sign his books.
A lonely business, writing. Especially when your target audience is kids caught up in the frenetic world of gizmos and gadgets that promote symbols and shorthand in place of actual words found in the English language. Gadgets for music and gossip and nonsense. Gadgets that help reduce the size of a kid`s brainpan instead of nurturing it and allowing it to grow.
Maybe you know who Mike Lupica is and maybe you don`t. Here`s your primer:
He`s a sports columnist for the New York Daily News. You`ve probably seen him on ESPN on Sunday mornings. Somewhat of a prodigy, this Lupica. Imagine getting your start in New York writing sports at the age of 22. Covered the Knicks for the NY Post. Two short years later he became the sports columnist for the Daily News. This was in the late `70s.
In the 1980s, when I first bumped into him at the U.S. Open, he was also writing pieces for Esquire under the heading, “The Sporting Life.”
One of his pieces in Esquire was on Elmore Leonard, the great crime-fiction writer who comes out of the Dashiell Hammett-Raymond Chandler School of tough-guy writing. Leonard`s easily the best of that genre, lapping Robert Parker or John D. MacDonald or anyone else you care to mention. His books include “Out of Sight,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Hombre,” “The Switch” and “Killshot” – all of which have become movies.
If you`ve ever read a Lupica book, you know that Elmore Leonard is his idol, if you will, when it comes to fiction writing: The style, the prose, the dialogue, the phrasing. All Leonard.
“You begin at the beginning,” Leonard told Lupica in the Esquire piece. “And it doesn`t begin until you actually sit down and start to write.” The “it” in question was the business of writing fiction.
So Lupica – the well-known sports columnist, TV commentator and the author of biographical sports books such as Reggie (Jackson) and Parcells (Bill) – began to write crime-fiction novels. His “Dead Air” was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Best First Mystery Award.
But in doing crime-fiction he was walking in Leonard`s shoes, along the path laid out by Hammett and Chandler, the path that Parker and so many others were also on. He was good at it. Darn good. But there can be only one Elmore Leonard.
So Lupica switched to writing books for young adults. A wealth of material to draw from there what with three sons and a daughter. He wrote “Travel Team,” about a small kid cut from the basketball team who overcomes the odds and eventually makes the travel team.
“Honey, I think you`re onto something here,” Lupica`s wife told him.
Lupica has since written “Miracle on 49th Street,” in which the hero is Molly Parker, a feisty girl who tracks down her estranged father, a superstar jock.
There`s “Two-Minute Drill,” about the school nerd who becomes friends with Chris Conlan, the cool guy who is the school`s star quarterback and the guy everyone wants to be. I got so engrossed in this one that I read about seven chapters standing in a bookstore aisle while my granddaughter crawled around the floor and made friends with other 3-year-olds.
“Hot Hand” features Billy, whose parents have separated. Billy has a difficult relationship with his father, who is also his coach on the school basketball team, and a younger brother who is a genius at the piano.
Lupica`s young adult books all come under the heading of “A Comeback Kids Novel.” They`re called this because they`re about everyday kids – kids who are short or fat or shy and slightly less talented than their peers – who fight their way back and overcome their problems.
Here`s where I`m going with this: Get yourself out of that insanely long line to buy the latest TiVo or MP3 player or Game Boy or text messaging device that allows your pre-teen to type wonderful things like: “RU going to the sch danz w/YBF or w/me?” and over to a book store.
I know, I know. It`ll be like going into Pakistan without a road map. You`ll get over it. After awhile, it will be like an enchanted forest. Whole vistas will open up.
Go to either the Young Adult section or the section with the sports books. Lupica`s books will be found in one of those aisles.
As a kid who grew up reading the great John R. Tunis (“The Kid from Tomkinsville,” “World Series,” “Keystone Kids” and “The Kid Comes Back”), I am not at all hesitant about putting Lupica`s Comeback Kids novels in Tunis` class.
His books appeal to both genders and to black and white and Latino. They are hip in a way that is neither cloying nor condescending.
Lupica has style and grace, which is to say he`s being himself while at the same time evoking shades of the master, Elmore Leonard, while doing it.
Although his Comeback Kids novels are directed to the 10-14 age group, you can easily be older than that and enjoy the heck out of these books. Why? Because Lupica can flat-out write, that`s why. And he doesn`t write down.
Where some sportswriters have carved a niche for themselves by setting a tape recorder down in front of a subject — letting the subject talk for two hours — then later typing out every word that`s been recorded and putting those typed words between two hard covers and calling the thing a book (selling it to Joe Fabeets, who`s at home listening to SportsTalk), Lupica actually starts from scratch and creates something of value – a novel about relationships and growing up in the real world.
This is not Harry Potter`s world of magic and genies and gremlins. It`s grittier stuff. The kind of stuff kids need to be reading when they are 10-14. Harder and truer stuff. Harder and more relevant than RU`s and MBF`s.
And now I want you to do something hard yourself. I want you to put one foot in front of the other, walk into a bookstore (do not be frightened by all the strange objects around you — they are just books ) and buy one for your kid. Let it be one of Lupica`s young adult books.
You can do worse this holiday season than buying a Lupica Comeback Kid novel for your child.
And you probably will.
Contact Doug Clarke at 329-7137 or ctsports@chroniclet.com.