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Rich Wallace (1957-) - Sidelights

review school sturbridge story

In his novels Wrestling Sturbridge, Shots on Goal, and The Roar of the Crowd, young adult author Rich Wallace has used "the metaphors of sports to explore universal themes of emerging adulthood and self-definition," according to Horn Book reviewer Maeve Visser Knoth. "Like other good writers," stated Ken Donelson in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, "Wallace recognizes the importance of telling a story that involves readers—mostly boys, but also girls and women—who recognize that the book is about sports and much, much more."

Wallace was born January 29, 1957, in Hackensack, New Jersey. Raised by his college-educated parents along with six brothers and sisters, he began writing as a first grader. But academics were not Wallace's strong suit. He found school to be dull, and he did not read much beyond what was required for his classes from sixth grade until after college. As a teenager, he was primarily interested in sports, especially track and cross country.

In high school, however, Wallace began writing extensively, keeping a diary in which he poured out his emotions. He also gained valuable experience by working on his school's newspaper. Wallace's evolution as a writer continued at New Jersey's Montclair State College. He took creative writing classes, including one that required him to pen a novel, one chapter per week. He also interned at the Passaic Herald-News, where he was later offered a paid writing and reporting position. Sports once again captured the majority of Wallace's attention, though. In fact, Wallace left college just two credits short of a degree. A couple of years later, he returned and completed two physical education courses to finish his degree.

After graduating from Montclair State in 1980 with a bachelor of arts degree, Wallace began reworking the novel that he had started in his creative writing class. He eventually finished the work and sent it to publishers, but every company rejected the work. Patricia Gauch, an editor at Philomel, shared some positive comments from the in-house staff, however, including several from Tracy Gates. Gates would later play a pivotal role in the publication of Wrestling Sturbridge.

Over the next eight years, Wallace continued his newspaper career, working variously as a sports reporter, news editor, and assistant city editor at a variety of New Jersey newspapers. He also married and became a father to two boys. In 1988, he began working for Highlights for Children as a copy editor. Today, he is a senior editor at the magazine, and publishing well-written stories has become Wallace's passion.

Wallace continued his own writing efforts during this period. In 1996, after working on a number of novels that "showed promise but didn't go anywhere," as he told Publishers Weekly contributor Heather Vogel Frederick, Wallace finally had a story that was different. "This one jelled right from the beginning," he continued, "I knew where it was going." Wallace sent the manuscript to Gates, who years earlier had complimented his first, failed effort. Gates, now an editor at Knopf, suggested changes to the new work, including a few additional scenes and chapters that fleshed out the story. "Wrestling Sturbridge wouldn't be what it is without Tracy, not by a long shot," the author remarked to Frederick.

Wrestling Sturbridge is the story of Ben, a high school senior and varsity wrestler who tires of being practice fodder for Al, his teammate and close friend. Faced with a bleak future in a dead-end town, Ben decides to challenge for Al's spot on the squad, despite the fact that Al is a top contender for the state title. Ben also begins a romance with the intelligent, tough-minded Kim, who believes in Ben more than he believes in himself. But "Wallace isn't writing a sports fairy story," a Publishers Weekly contributor declared. Instead, Wrestling Sturbridge offers a "strong portrait of a smothering small town," Horn Book reviewer Maeve Visser Knoth remarked, "and the hopelessness that it engenders in an adolescent." "Anyone even remotely curious about small-town America need look no further than this exemplary first novel," stated a Publishers Weekly critic.

Reviewers also praised the author's narrative voice. Wallace, "like Ben, whose voice is so strong and clear here," wrote Debbie Carton in Booklist, "weighs his words carefully, making every one count." "He [Ben] tells the story in a spare way appropriate to his undemonstrative, nonverbal nature," a Kirkus Reviews critic added, "recording fast and furious wrestling action, the steady burn of his own anger and frustration, and brief but telling glimpses of the people around him." Wrestling Sturbridge, Donelson concluded, "is about young people who care about life and about keeping promises they've made to themselves and others. It is a rare sports story because there is no super-hero and no villain."

The setting for Shots on Goal, Wallace's next book, remains in Sturbridge but moves to the soccer field. A critic in Kirkus Reviews declared that "Wallace flattens the sophomore jinx in this taut, present-tense tale of an underdog high-school soccer team battling internal dissension." The instigators of this internal dissension are Barry "Bones" Austin and his best friend, Joey. Bones realizes that he is stuck in "second place," not only on the soccer field, where he is the team's second-best player (after Joey), but also at home, where his older brother, Tommy, is the favored son of their parents.

Tension arises when Bones' object of desire, Shannon, begins dating Joey. Bones also grows resentful of Joey's increasingly selfish play on the field. As the soccer season rolls on, "a face-off between the two teens" occurs, Booklist critic Frances Bradburn stated, the critic adding that each boy is "striving to find his own identity without the other, in spite of the other." The face-off finally comes to an end after "the two friends square off in a fight that makes both aware how important their soccer team and their friendship are," according to Donelson.

Like Wrestling Sturbridge, Shots on Goal earned praise for its fully developed characters and exciting action. Dina Sherman, writing in School Library Journal, felt that the "situations and emotions that Bones experiences are all very real, and young people will relate to them." A critic for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books added that "the soccer matches are fast, the interaction with girls unromantically realistic, and the voice is engaging, as Bones tells his story as a rueful eyewitness account."

In Playing without the Ball: A Novel in Four Quarters Wallace again invites readers to enter the world of high school sports in Sturbridge. The main character is Jay, a seventeen-year-old basketball player who supports himself by working part-time in a bar, while also living by himself above the bar. After Jay is cut from his high school team, he joins a YMCA squad that offers him the competitive outlet he needs. Jay also develops a relationship with Spit, the female lead singer for a punk band that often performs at the bar. According to School Library Journal contributor Jack Forman, Playing without the Ball "has a lot to say about friendship, independence, and self-realization." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Wallace's well-written game sequences, adding, "with equal skill, the author limns the resilient Jay and his realistically awkward and tentative forays into romance."

Wallace turned to the short-story form in his next work, Losing Is Not an Option. The nine interconnected tales focus on Ron, a student-athlete growing up in a small, working-class Pennsylvania town. Many of the stories "are filled with subtlety and ambiguity, offering snapshots of the protagonist at various points of his teenage life," wrote Todd Morning in School Library Journal. In "Night Game," for example, an adolescent Ron realizes that his best friend has left him behind, and in "I Voted for Mary Ann," Ron must cope with the death of his beloved grandfather. In the title story, the boy, now a high school senior, competes for the state track championship. Though a Publishers Weekly critic noted that not all of the tales are equally successful, "together they powerfully render an athlete's coming of age." According to Booklist contributor Michael Cart, the best stories in the collection "have a wonderful emotional integrity and remind readers that Wallace is a writer to watch."

A seventeen-year-old athlete encounters a supernatural being in Wallace's novel Restless: A Ghost's Story. While running through a graveyard late one night, Herbie senses that an unusual presence is following him. Intrigued, he returns again and again to the cemetery and eventually meets the spirit of a young man named Eamon. Herbie later believes that he has also contacted the ghost of his older brother, Frank, who died ten years earlier and serves as the book's narrator. According to Donna M. Knott in School Library Journal, Herbie, Eamon, and Frank "are intertwined in a search for an understanding of one another's experiences in life and in death and how to move on from them." In Restless, Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick observed, Wallace "raises interesting questions about an afterlife."

In 2004 Wallace began publishing works in the "Winning Season" series for middle-grade readers. The Roar of the Crowd concerns sixth-grader Manny Ramos, a short, scrawny football player whose mistakes cost his team a win and land him on the bench. The speedy Manny never loses heart, though, and when he gets another chance to prove himself, he makes the most of his opportunity. Reviewing The Roar of the Crowd in School Library Journal, Kate Kohlbeck remarked, "this story conveys an all-important message about perseverance and making the most of one's strengths."

In Technical Foul, another volume in the series, a talented but hot-headed basketball player learns to rely on his teammates when his squad falls into a slump. Ilene Cooper, reviewing the "Winning Season" series in Booklist, noted that "most of the text is play-by-play action, which will engage young sports fans." Fast Company and Double Fake are two other titles in the series.

Wallace has but one goal for his writing: to offer an honest representation of how adolescent boys struggle to find their identity. Wallace also hopes that, after reading his books, some teenagers will realize their potential. Critics agree that Wallace's novels have touched young adults; as Donelson stated, "It's safe to say that many readers . . . await whatever Wallace has to offer."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Donelson, Ken, St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1996, Debbie Carton, review of Wrestling Sturbridge, p. 128; September 15, 1997, Frances Bradburn, review of Shots on Goal, p. 224; September 1, 1998, Sally Estes, review of Shots on Goal, p. p. 119; September 1, 2000, Frances Bradburn, review of Playing without the Ball, p. 116; September 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Playing without the Ball, p. 101; August, 2003, Michael Cart, review of Losing Is Not an Option, p. 1973; September 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of The Roar of the Crowd, pp. 111-112.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1997, review of Shots on Goal, pp. 143-144.

Horn Book, November-December, 1996, Mave Visser Knoth, review of Wrestling Sturbridge, p. 747; November, 1997, Susan P. Bloom, review of Shots on Goal, p. 687; November, 2000, Susan P. Bloom, review of Playing without the Ball, p. 763.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1996, review of Wrestling Sturbridge, p. 752; July 15, 1997, review of Shots on Goal, p. 1118; July 1, 2003, review of Losing Is Not an Option, p. 916; August 1, 2003, review of Restless: A Ghost's Story, p. 1025.

Kliatt, August, 1997, p. 53; September, 1997, p. 15; November, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of Playing without the Ball, p. 22; September, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of Restless, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, review of Wrestling Sturbridge, p. 84; July 1, 1996, Heather Vogel Frederick, "Flying Starts: Six Children's Book Newcomers Share Thoughts on Their Debut Projects," pp. 34-37; August 21, 2000, review of Playing without the Ball, p. p. 74; August 18, 2003, review of Losing Is Not an Option, p. 80.

School Library Journal, November, 1997, Dina Sherman, review of Shots on Goal, pp. 124-125; October, 2000, Jack Forman, review of Playing without the Ball, p. 173; September, 2003, Todd Morning, review of Losing Is Not an Option, p. 222; November, 2003, Donna M. Knott, review of Restless, p. 150; March, 2004, Andrew Medlar, review of Losing Is Not an Option, p. 69; September, 2004, Kate Kohlbeck, review of The Roar of the Crowd, p. 219; October, 2004, Michael Giller, review of Technical Foul, p. 181.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 14, 1996, p. 7.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1997, p. 114.

ONLINE

Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (March 24, 2005) "Rich Wallace."*

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