December 24, 2021

On the Line

Written by Paul Coccia and Eric Walters
Orca Book Publishers
312 pp.
Ages 9-13
March 2022
"...if you're down twenty points in the last two minutes, you still play your best..." (pg. 52)
What's on the line for thirteen-year-old Jordan Ryker? Everything. His parents can't stop arguing. The auto plant where his dad works, being the town's major employer, is shutting down. Even basketball, which is everything to Jordan and his best friend Junior, is somewhat tenuous with the school's new basketball coach who really doesn't know what he's doing. And now Jordan has to figure out how to work with new kids, brother and sister Aaron and Tammy, who are very different and both want on the boys' basketball team.  

Most unexpectedly, Jordan's dad moves out and reveals that he's gay. In a community where everybody knows everyone else's business, Jordan is not dealing well with it. Junior tries to help Jordan see the courage his dad is showing in being true to himself finally, and Tammy with whom Jordan starts going out is all about supporting social justice issues and even starts a Gay-Straight Alliance club at the school. But it's all too much for Jordan who responds to his parents' separation and his father's coming out with frustration and anger. 

At thirteen, Jordan is already dealing with a lot of new situations. He's thinking about girls but is both intrigued and uncomfortable with them. He's been struggling with an unstable home situation, which then becomes even more dubious as he tries to adjust to two different lives and a father different than the one he thought he always knew. Worse yet, Jordan takes it all personally, convinced that he is the aggrieved party, rather than seeing beyond himself what others may be feeling and experiencing. He can't see the efforts that everyone around him are making to support him and themselves in what they need. Sadly, though Junior, Tammy and others try to help him accept their support, there are some whose homophobic and narrow-minded perspectives on the Ryker family cause more tension for all. 

There's a great story here but it's Paul Coccia and Eric Walters's characters that carry On the Line. With Jordan, they have given us a typical young man in a somewhat unusual familial situation. They've created a kid who loves his family, hates their fighting, is starting to have romantic feelings, and is angry and frustrated because none of his life feels straightforward or easy anymore. I don't know many who would choose to go through puberty again but to compound that tension with confusion about your father and his relationship with you would be overwhelming, as it is for Jordan. Then there's his father who is trying to navigate a new relationship with his son, with his wife, with his community and even a new partner but most of all with himself. There's Tammy who strives for the world to be fair to her and to others. She challenges the school for her right to be on the boys' basketball team. She's all about diversity and inclusion and she wants others to be the same. Even Junior and Aaron are developed into full characters that add contrast and meaning to On the Line.

This is the first writing collaboration between Paul Coccia and Eric Walters and, having reviewed books by both previously, I can attest to a new synergy to their writing as they bring their strengths in plotting, character development, and voice and meld them with LGBTQ+ issues and sports into something new and important. They've given us a story that challenges young readers to see beyond themselves and from different perspectives and with compassion for the struggles that others may be experiencing. With heart and intention, they've put themselves out there and helped us see from that angle what's really meaningful: friends, family, and fair play for all.

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