After finishing his graphic novel duology Boxers & Saints, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is worried about finding his next story. In the halls of Bishop O’Dowd High School (where he taught computer science), Yang starts hearing about “the big game.” Bishop O’Dowd’s men’s basketball team, the Dragons, have a chance at winning the California state tournament. Sensing a story, Yang finds himself stepping outside of his comfort zone to record the Dragons’ journey to the state tournament.
Dragon Hoops is a combination of personal narrative and sports story, with a dollop of history for flavor. Yang interweaves his personal journey with those of head coach Lou Richie and the team members to build up the journey to the big game. The inclusion of Yang’s struggle to figure out his career helps tease out the story’s main themes, which include the importance of putting yourself out there and taking risks. Yang reflects on the journey with good humor and admiration for the Dragons, although he doesn’t pull punches while addressing difficult topics. The result is an engaging, dense story that pulls you in and gets you thinking.
Yang’s artwork strongly conveys the emotion behind the story and helps make the story manageable. Yang’s dynamic panels capture the characters’ athleticism and emotions, making the reader feel like they’re in the middle of the action. The strong sports action is balanced with lighter scenes that capture the camaraderie and humor in the daily lives of these athletes. The story, with its heavy detail and topics, could feel over-crowded in parts, but Yang’s artwork makes it easy to follow. The art also helps highlight the themes. One particularly powerful recurring image is a foot crossing a line to show when someone was taking a risk or making a transition.
Dragon Hoops will appeal to readers who enjoy sports stories, and it will also garner interest with those who like memoirs. First Second recommends Dragon Hoops for ages fourteen to eighteen, and this reviewer agrees with that rating as a starting point. The narrative is fairly complex and, at various points, wrestles with ethical questions, such as how to accurately report on sensitive topics (for instance, a scandal involving the basketball team’s previous head coach). With its compelling, meaty story, adult readers will also find much to enjoy here. Libraries that have Yang’s previous works or are looking to expand their nonfiction graphic novel collection will want to purchase Dragon Hoops.
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese, Black, South Asian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator