Edmonton author Alison Hughes’s latest book for young readers (her back catalogue includes picture books and other middle-grade and YA titles) tells the story of the Gladiators, a junior-high basketball team whose bully of a coach gets fired for throwing a basketball at one of his players. After losing their coach, the team rebounds thanks to the efforts of Sameer, the Gladiators’ scorekeeper turned assistant coach, and their new coach, the school’s drama teacher, Mr. Williams. Coach Williams is mostly clueless when it comes to basketball, but he is kind and creative, and gives Sameer a chance to let his leadership qualities shine.
Kings of the Court is well paced, and its characters are realistically rendered with depth. A particularly nice feature is how casually multicultural the book is. Hughes creates a cast of characters from various backgrounds, but they’re not highlighted as ethnic characters, they’re just people in the story. The details of their lives are described breezily. For instance, in the first reference to Sameer’s grandmother, she’s simply described as Nani, and their relationship (and that nani is Hindi for grandmother) is explained naturally in the course of the narrative. This approach will likely be appreciated by kids who are used to their culture being portrayed as “other,” and may widen the perspective of those whose cultures are typically portrayed as the norm.
Hughes also clearly lays out abusive and toxic behaviour on the part of several of the characters, making it easy for kids to recognize what’s acceptable and what’s not. In several scenes, the abusive coach hurls insults – and basketballs – at his players, and two members of the Gladiators taunt their new coach and quit the team in the middle of a practice as a way of protesting an exercise they consider “stupid.”
Readers don’t need to be basketball fans to appreciate Kings of the Court; the book should appeal to anyone who likes a good story about overcoming challenges.