When pretty and popular Amanda approaches her about joining the soccer team, fifth grader Faith agrees. But instead of playing with Amanda, Faith finds herself on the Bloodhounds, the worst middle school soccer team. Faith and her team are awful; almost no one can play the game, and no one—not even the coach—wants to be there. However, that won’t stop Faith and her teammates from making friends!
Many sports team books focus on the players becoming better athletes and teammates, but Johnson goes a different direction, choosing instead to show the characters developing relationships, exploring their sexuality, and pursuing their interests outside of a sport that none of them enjoy. Johnson mixes games with the characters interacting with one another and figuring out their interests and relationships. Johnson is careful to include scenes with each teammate to round out the characters and make the reader become emotionally invested in the story.
However, not every team member gets equal treatment, so the narrative as a whole seems a bit fractured at times and stories occasionally feel unfinished. A good example is that one of the seventh grade players gets into a fight with her friends, but that particular character arc is never fully resolved. There are also scenes where Faith imagines she is following around this messenger in a fantasy world where characters are frequently inspired by individuals in Faith’s orbit. While these scenes demonstrate Faith’s very active imagination and hint at some of her inner thoughts, they don’t have the same emotional pull that the real-life scenarios have and take away from the main story. Johnson excels in portraying the emotions around real-life situations, such as sexual and gender identity and the development of friendship, and it’s the strength of these portrayals that drive The Breakaways.
Despite some plotting issues, the book has a number of strengths that make it appealing. One strength is the characterization and diversity of the team. Faith herself is black, and there is also a Spanish-speaking character, a Muslim girl, and an Asian girl. The diverse cast includes members of the LGBT community as well. All of these aspects are naturally incorporated, and the characters support one another. None of the portrayals follow stereotypes, and each character is able to have her own personality, even if all of them are united in their dislike of soccer.
Johnson’s artwork effectively captures the diverse cast. In addition to giving the cast a variety of body types, Johnson is good about adding little details—such as the way characters dress and color their hair—to convey personality. Her artwork and text generally play well off each other, even when the text isn’t in English! The character Yarelis has an argument with her mother in Spanish; there is no translation, but Yarelis’ body language conveys the gist, although some readers might be frustrated by the lack of translation.
Despite its faults, The Breakaways should appeal to older elementary school readers who are looking for realistic coming of age stories. Older readers will probably be more open to The Breakaways; there is a scene where two of the characters have a sleepover and end up kissing, and Faith blushes over a teammate’s exposed bra strap. Details such as these lead the reviewer to believe that younger middle schoolers may also find this an enjoyable read. Because of its strong portrayals of real life challenges, fans of Raina Telgemier and similar creators will likely enjoy The Breakaways.
By Cathy G. Johnson
First Second, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8-11