From her myriad experience as a primary school teacher in inner-city London, Venessa Taylor tells us that one of the two key reasons why children can be reluctant to read is because they simply haven’t found literature that they find engaging yet; once this happens, they are able to fall in love with reading. In her children’s novel Baller Boys, which tracks two boys as they try out for their dream football team and make new friends, Taylor addresses just this issue, and offers a nuanced, thrilling, and heart-warming tale that can enthrall even the most reluctant of primary school readers.
Baller Boys was absolutely fantastic, even for a twenty year old! The narrative of success tinged with disappointment is one to which we can all relate to, and is wise to highlight to children as a normal part of life. Not only is the football theme a huge selling point to kids – especially boys, who are 11% less likely to be of the expected reading standard at Key Stage 2 – but the story goes further than a surface level enjoyment. Baller Boys considers the importance of kindness, charity, perseverance, and self-understanding, which are absolutely key for young people to have examples of. It is, at its heart, a story of perseverance; of hard work paying off. I confess that it has been a while since I read any children’s novels, but reading Baller Boys reminded me of all the classically vital lessons young children must learn, and reminded me how effectively and entertainingly literature can provide these lessons. Taylor addresses passion, friendship, feeling left out, behavioral conditions, and cultural experiences of parenthood, all without ever taking away from the story at hand. This is a wonderful story of childhood growth, as a group of young boys tackle the trials and tribulations of friendship and football.
One of my favourite elements of the book was how committed it was to casual, but very conscious, multi-cultural representation. We live in an incredibly rich, multi-cultural society, and in London it is arguably even more so, and it is absolutely about time art and culture reflected this. Baller Boys is primarily about two young boys of colour and their families, but also features characters from biracial parents, Turkish families, and a child whose Nigerian mother finds herself living between two countries; Taylor truly grapples with London’s melting pot culture, and beautifully represents a plethora of cultural experiences without making it the book’s focus. Baller Boys exemplifies the fact that multiculturalism can be a background fact of a piece of literature; it can be present without anybody being able to complain that it is overbearing.
Something else that caught my attention was the occasional focus on parental experience, as we dip into the thought processes of Shay’s mother, or the football coaches. These moments briefly bring into focus the experience of parents, which highlights the dual entertainment factor of the book. In a wonderfully savvy move, that only a parent themselves could have thought of, Taylor makes the book entertaining and poignant for a child reader and a parent reading to their child. Being in between the demographics of parent and child right now, I was able to enjoy moments that I know my childhood self would’ve loved, and notice more mature, touching moments of parental experience.
The characters in Baller Boys, featuring Shay and Frankie at the centre, are wonderfully crafted. Venessa Taylor has written nuanced young people; not one of the characters is perfect, as they all have moments of regret and making mistakes, but every one of them acknowledges their errors, and uses them as opportunities to grow. In childhood, it can be so easy to draw on examples of bitterness or feeling afraid to admit that you’re wrong, but this book provides role models in the shape of children who can accept their mistakes and move forward, being better for it. In such a complex world, it is paramount that we offer children the best role models we possibly can, and Baller Boys is crammed full of bright, passionate young children who are able to grow, and who are encouraging to their friends.
The only part of Baller Boys that I didn’t enjoy was the revelation that the boys support Arsenal; otherwise, it was pitched perfectly. From the touching story of the real Coach Reece, Taylor’s late son-in-law, and his involvement in developing the story, to the ode to the strength of childhood friendship, Baller Boys gives children a thrilling narrative filled with hope, disappointment, and ultimate success. Frankie and Shay show us that hard work really does pay off, and Venessa Taylor’s hard work certainly has, as Baller Boys is a stellar children’s novel that would put a smile on any reluctant reader’s face.