This review (or an edited version of it) originally ran in The Edge of the Forest/
Toby Wheeler: Eighth Grade Benchwarmer by Thatcher Heldring (Delacorte Press, August 2007)
Toby is just your average gym-rat, playing basketball down at the rec center whenever he gets a chance. When the junior high’s new basketball coach sees him play, he invites Toby to join the team. Toby’s never been one for the organized play of the school team, but maybe joining the team will help repair his friendship with JJ, the team’s star. Toby and JJ used to be best friends, but this summer JJ’s been growing distant and leaving Toby further and further behind.
Joining the team only creates more problems than it solves. Toby’s regulated to the bench and his attitude isn’t winning him any points with JJ, who continues to drift away. Toby’s budding relationship with the coach’s daughter Megan just creates further tension.
There’s also an odd subplot that pits Toby’s dad (who works for the lumber company) against his mother (an environmental activist).
Toby’s relationship with JJ is one we don’t see enough of in tween literature. Toby’s first person narration captures the confusion of changing friendship while still believably sounding like an eighth grade boy. Also, the budding relationship with Megan is handled in such a way to still be a “boy book.”
Overall, it’s a done, yet still heart-warming sports story about a guy learning the meaning of teamwork, a coach remembering how to play for the love of the game instead of winning, and a really killer basket right at the buzzer. A good bet for sports stories fans in the 10-14 age range.
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