Review: Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second (Macmillan)
Grades 8 and Up
Out March 17, 2020
A book review is basically an informed opinion the reviewer is trying to turn into a fact. That’s the challenge – examining reactions and observations for elements of concrete quality, and putting them together in a convincing (and maybe a bit persuasive) way. But what happens if you go into a book with your opinion nearly formed? I knew before I even opened Dragon Hoops that I was going to like it. I like basketball. I’ve enjoyed everything Gene Luen Yang has made. Talk about reviewer bias. But what I didn’t expect was just how deeply I’d love it. How Yang manages to turn a story about a high school basketball team into an epic work combining nonfiction, memoir, metafiction, and history. Yes, my opinion going into the book was positive, but the further I read, the more my opinion began to feel like a fact. Dragon Hoops is one of the best graphic novels of this, or any year.
In a metafictional twist, the book opens with the focus on the author himself. Coming off the critically acclaimed Boxers & Saints, Gene Luen Yang had a problem: what would his next book be? At the time he was still working as a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. While the school’s basketball teams were excellent, the sports-averse Yang had never taken a whole lot of notice. But the more he learned about the program, the more he knew that this was his next book. He follows the boys varsity team, sharing the stories of the coaching staff and players as they march toward a dramatic state finals showdown.
Yes, the book follows the team and individual players in their quest for an elusive California state championship, but what really sets this book apart – nay, makes it a masterpiece – is how Yang treats it all as a springboard for historical perspective. The book frequently jumps back in time to show key elements in the development of basketball, including the invention of the sport by Dr. James Naismith, the development and evolution of the women’s game, and the growth of the sport in China. In this way, Yang being a relative basketball outsider is an asset – he turns what could be a boring history lesson into a compelling, entertaining, and essential part of the story.
While reading, I kept thinking about how challenging it must have been for Yang to write about his own school, students and staff. One of the most clear examples of this challenge is in Yang’s metafictional tug-of-war about delving into the story of the previous varsity basketball coach. Mike Phelps was the winningest coach in state history when he was fired amid a sex crime accusation. When Yang does finally decide to talk about Coach Phelps, it’s clear that his aim is to give as complete a picture as possible.
The artwork is unfailingly crisp, full of clean lines and sharp panel work. Lark Pien adds the gently subdued colors that give the whole operation a sense of unity.
Dragon Hoops took my premature opinion and blew it up. I don’t like this book. I love this book. And I think you will to.
Review copy from the publisher.
Listen to Gene Luen Yang interviewed on The Yarn podcast:
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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