Glenn Stout has written many sports biographies for young people, including the Good Sports series, a group of collective biographies with inspiring stories about athletes who have oversome adversity or shown resilence. He also edits The Best American Sports Writing. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about the latest edition to his Good Sports series, From Hardships to Championships, a collective biography of baseball players from tough backgrounds.
Kidsbiographer: You’ve been a sports writer and baseball fan for some time, so you were probably quite familiar with the men you profiled for From Hardships to Championships. However, research can uncover new angles on even familiar figures. During your research, which new facts or anecdotes about your subjects most surprised you?
Glenn Stout: I was most surprised by Ron Leflore’s story. I knew he had served time in prison, but I had no idea just how much he had to overcome. He grew up in terrible circumstances, immersed in crime and substance abuse from a very young age, and was on a path that, without baseball, probably would have resulted in his incarceration for life. But in prison, he started playing ball, enjoyed some success and was encouraged when he was told he had a future in the game. What is so sad is that the kind of prison sports program that saved Leflore are very rare these days. Due to lacks of funds and overcrowding, those opportunities don’t really exist anymore.
Kidsbiographer: The book’s biographies contain a lot of difficult subjects: poverty, abusive parents, drug abuse, mental illness, crime. Which of these topics did you find hardest to present to a middle-grade audience, and how did you approach it?
Glenn Stout: They are all difficult, but I’ve found the best way to write about them is to be very straightforward, very direct. Kids can tell when you are glossing over something, and they are very sophisticated. I was particularly aware of this in regard to Joe Torre’s abusive father. His abuse to Joe wasn’t physical as much as it was mental and emotional, and I wanted to communicate Torre’s anxiety in a very real way, to show his fear, and show kids that’s not right.
Kidsbiographer: From Hardships to Championships contains several remarkable stories of perseverance and success in the face of almost unimaginable odds. Which of the athletes’ stories did you find most compelling, and why?
Glenn Stout: Torri Hunter’s story really gets me because it is so immediate to so many kids today who grow up in a gang environment. His story contained some very practical lessons in how to negotiate that background, what steps to take to free yourself from that path, and, just as importantly, how he now sees his role and helps others choose a better way through education. That’s a huge problem and his story and his approach is very instructional.
Kidsbiographer: If you could have written a longer version of this book, who are some of the other baseball players you would have included?
Glenn Stout: Oh, there are so many. Sadly, I could have had done another 20 books like this about baseball players alone, and a similar number from other sports. But if I ever do another baseball volume, I think I would be sure to include the story of Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who has had to overcome the impact of sexual abuse. In the wake of the Penn State scandals, that’s an enormous issue and kids need to feel empowered to talk about abuse to responsible, caring adults, and help stop that cycle.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids will take away from From Hardships to Championships?
Glenn Stout: That no circumstance is hopeless, and there are ways to succeed in spite of your background and upbringing. Sports is only one of many paths that help, but it is one that is familiar and available to almost everyone. It doesn’t mean you have to be a professional, or be any good – you just have to spend your time doing something positive. They don’t realize it, but that’s what reading is doing as well; every minute a kid is reading, is a minute he or she is not getting in trouble or being abused. Add up those minutes, and you’ve started a path to a better future.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Glenn Stout: I’d love to continue this series, but as of the moment, despite the fact that 5 of 6 titles have been JLG selections, critical response has been terrific, the titles have sold well, and fit into the “common core” being put into place, its future is uncertain. Everyone says we need books like this, particularly for boys, but if the major retailers don’t stock them, they are hard to sustain. You know, if we include the 39 Matt Christopher sports biographies that I wrote, I’ve probably sold more than one million books to this age group. Yet major retailers and publishers don’t seem to recognize that. It’s mindboggling.
At the present, I am spending most of my time editing long-form sports journalism, and continuing my work as series editor of The Best American Sports Writing.