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12 February 2013 WINGER by Andrew Smith, Simon & Schuster, May 2013, 448p., ISBN: 978-1-4424-4492-8


"How many friends have I really got?

You can count them on one hand.

How many friends have I really got?

"How many friends have I really got?

That love me, that want me, that'll take me as I am?"

-- Pete Townshend (1975)


"'You know, nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was. Things just expand and contract. Like the universe, like breathing. But you'll never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. Sometimes, it would be cool if you could pause and rewind and do over. But I think anyone would get tired of that after one or two times.'"

-- Fly half and team captain, Joey Cosentino


"But, through everything, I think what strikes me most is how a guy can be going along, sailing on a particular course (even if it sucks), and he'll think everything is so steady and predictable, and then BAM! someone steps on his balls, or he gets into an uncontrollable fistfight with one of his best friends.

"Or even worse things than that.

"And you can't see around corners, so you just have to deal with it and try to stay afloat.

-- Winger and narrator Ryan Dean West


According to Wikipedia, many different types of football were played throughout Britain between 1400 and 1800. Running with the ball became common in the 1830s at Britain's Rugby School, and Rugby School football became popular throughout the UK in the 1850s and 1860s. Then, in the 1880s, Yale coach Walter Camp devised rules that would lead to the evolution of American football as a game very different than rugby.


I honestly just had to do a search in order to learn that the University of Connecticut, where I did my undergrad many years ago, does actually have a rugby club that has been around since the early seventies. (In fact, there are now both men's and women's rugby clubs there.) Another search revealed that San Jose State University -- where I teach -- has similarly had a rugby club that also goes back to the early seventies. I had no idea.


I've learned a lot about rugby by reading Andrew Smith's WINGER. But my lessons in rugby football have been totally eclipsed by the ridiculous amount of time I spent doubled over, laughing, as I tried to read this oft-heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about a small, brainy, fourteen year-old rugby player who is a junior at Pine Mountain Academy, a fancy boarding school in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. In fact, Chapter 15 of WINGER is likely one of the top ten funniest book chapters I have read in my entire life, and it leads to some running plot lines that kept halting my reading progress -- chapter after chapter -- amidst gales of laughter.


Despite his academic prowess, fourteen year-old rugby winger Ryan Dean West is spending his junior year living in the austere confines and enhanced regulations of Opportunity Hall (O-Hall) with the school's troublemakers (mostly in trouble for fighting), rather than in the regular boy's dorm suite with his friends and former roomies JP and Seanie. This, because he was caught last year stealing and hacking a teacher's cell phone in order to call his best friend and dream girl Annie Altman. (It was not his first run-in with trouble. His rich, Boston-based parents initially sent him off to Pine Mountain Academy two years earlier, after he was arrested for breaking into and trying to drive a T train.)


But Ryan Dean has vowed to himself and to his BFF Annie that this year is going to be different. And it sure as heck is. Different than anything I've ever read.


Through it all, the character who stands out in WINGER is rugby team captain Joey Cosentino, who apparently is one of the boys who has found his way into O-Hall because of his fists. But Joey has good reason for having to fight: the crap he repeatedly has to endure for being openly gay.


Joey Cosentino is the guy who repeatedly tells Ryan Dean the truth about the winger's questionable behavior; who repeatedly put his own body on the line to protect Ryan Dean; who is the kind of friend that most of us can only dream of having. And it is, thanks to Joey Cosentino, that Ryan Dean West does, in fact, get his act together during the opening months of this school year.


Profane and profound, you will be hearing a LOT more about WINGER in the coming months. It's one of those books.


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/



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