The first in the Zan series, Zanballer (1972) is about a fourteen-year old girl named Zan whose plans for her basketball season are crushed when her school gym unexpectedly gets renovated. The boys’ team is given alternate arrangements, but the girls’ team gets nothing, and to add insult to injury the girls must learn dancing in their P.E. class. So Zan organizes a girls’ football team, with the help of her nerdy klutzy male best friend Rinehart. Sports hijinks ensue! The writer R.R. Knudson’s obituary explains that this scenario really happened to her when she was in high school.
Zanballer is written a breezy and irreverent style. In the opening chapters, Rinehart outlines a “foolproof” way to cheat on an English test. He had to do it because he was up all night reading Siddhartha so he couldn’t study the parts of speech. Makes sense to me! Zan is changing in the locker room when she finds out that the gym is being renovated and her basketball season is cancelled, and she’s so incensed that she runs down into the gym to scream at the contractors, not bothering to put her shirt back on. Way to go, Zan.
The girls are reluctant to join Zan’s team (Catch-11) at first, but with lots of practice they soon become excellent football players. Just like every single other time I read this childhood favorite, I zoned out when it came to describing the football plays and terms. Although I’ve read this book over and over again, I’ve learned absolutely nothing about football. It says a lot that I love reading a book about a sport that bores me. R.R. Knudson aims to show with this novel that, as Rinehart says, girls can develop the same strength, speed, stamina, and muscle structure as boys. I believed this wholeheartedly when I read this book as a child. I hope I don’t sound like an essentialist creep if I say that this philosophy which permeated my progressive, Cuisenaire-rod-wielding, Free-To-Be-You-And-Me-listening 1970s/1980s childhood probably did me more harm than good. Anyway, I do enjoy reading about how good Zan is at everything. I also enjoy the sports science of the day—you should eat a cup of honey before your big game!
The story is told through first person narration, Zan’s football journal, newspaper reportage, and Rinehart’s scientific journal. (Rinehart is Catch-11’s coach. You don’t have to be able to play football to tell other people what to do.) The biggest villain in the book is Randy Boyle, the star of the boys’ football team, who constantly bullies the girls and physically hurts Zan. We’ll get more of Randy in the next book.
It wouldn’t be a sports book without a big game at the end. Catch-11 plays the rival high school’s (boys) JV team at the Dogwood Bowl. They don’t play tackle football, instead they grab red handkerchief’s out of each other’s back right pocket. I won’t spoil it by telling you who wins. There’s also a sports award dinner, and I won’t spoil that either.
On the cover of this book, Zan has stringy dark hair; on the next, blonde curls; on the third, I believe she goes back to dark. On the fourth she’s a brunette in the hardcover but back to blonde for the paperback and with short hair for the first time. I can now tell you that in the text of this book she’s definitively described as blonde, twice. Anyway, other than the hair color, I think it’s a nice cover. I’m a big fan of the Dell Laurel Leaf Library imprint books from that era.
What didn’t I like about this book? Lots of making fun of fat people. Especially making fun of Mrs. Butor, the Phys. Ed. teacher who doesn’t support the girls playing football. (“Bring an extra-large camera,” “Coach will ply Butor with cookies,” etc.) As a kid I thought Mrs. Butor was an evil monster who was unfair to Zan, but now I feel somewhat sympathetic to her. The entire time Zan is in her class she’s scowling, cracking jokes, insulting Mrs. Butor, and refusing to dance. I can see how Mrs. Butor would get irritated at Zan. One character that I didn’t like as a child was hyper-femmey Aileen, the team’s center, whatever that is. But this time I found her chatter about her pearl ID ankle bracelet and so forth very entertaining.
Similar (but not as great) book: Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally
Theme song: Deacon Blues by Steely Dan