with John H. Ritter
by Carrie Pauling (Brodart's PRIME, March 2007)
Accountants calculate numbers and nurses, hushed, listen to the cadence of heartbeats and stethoscopes. Rock stars jam on guitars; painters wield brushes; writers form sentences with a 26-word alphabet. People are defined by what they do, no matter what they do. To some, this may seem inhibiting, type-casting. For John H. Ritter, award-winning novelist, being a self-titled baseball novelist offers him freedom. "It might be hard to understand," he says. True—a writer can string together lines of prose. But narrow that writer to, specifically, sports writer, and suddenly his opportunities for free association close in, right? Not necessarily for him, says Ritter.
"I slip under the radar of an awful lot of people because of that title," says Ritter, now a notable author of sports fiction for young adult readers. Writing under the cover of baseball "allows me to reach an audience who would most likely never pick up a book about religious-based bigotry or the cowardice of war, or demising anti-environmentalists, and so on."
Ritter's coming-of-age stories include players of the all-American game, true. But they also include characters with whom just about any young person (and any adult who remembers what it's like to be a kid) can identify. Some have unquenchable dreams of stardom; some merely want to save a piece of their hometown. Most are trying to establish their place in the world.
Ritter's breakout novel, Choosing Up Sides (1998) found immediate success—winning an ALA Best Books notation, 1999 International Reading Association's Children's Book Award, and a 1999 Blue Ribbon Book citation from The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Pieces from Ritter's unique background—All-Star shortstop and MVP of his high school baseball team, the influence of his sports-writer father and musical mother (though she died of breast cancer when he was only four, he remembers her singing)—laid the foundation for a number of follow-up celebrated novels, including The Boy Who Saved Baseball (Penguin Group, 2003) and his most recent Under the Baseball Moon (Penguin Group, 2006).
Soul-searching questions are not lost on young readers—Ritter actually believes a young audience is the perfect sponge to soak up his ponderable spills. Young benchwarmer Tom Gallagher puts a question in Doc Altenheimer's mind in The Boy Who Saved Baseball: "Is it new facilities that would help this town the most, or a new spirit?" He's referring to the run-down baseball diamond on his land—shoot, the same one Doc had a hand in building, but that he's decided to sell to developers to help revitalize the town. Young Tom, desperate to save the diamond, finds himself in a pickle. Doc will save the field—but only if Tom's rag-tag team can beat the All-Stars in the next town—opponents with a sparkly new chain-link fence and impressive field. If they lose, he'll sell. The team embarks on a mission that is helped along by their mysterious peer, Cruz de la Cruz, who rides in on horseback to help the team, baseball bat slung like a rifle, and crazy ex-pro Dante del Gato who was once a baseball hero, living as a hermit in the hills outside Dillontown.
It's the question that lingers beyond baseball action: "Should we take this drastic action or should we work on rebuilding our spirit?" Ritter equates it with the state of the world as he saw it in 2003, teetering on war with Iraq, a mostly supportive nation backing the President. "I fill my books with moral questions—from the genesis of bigotry to the definition of success—because these are things we need to think about, as children and adults," says Ritter, who feels that "we're not teaching [our kids] to think critically about vital questions of our time. That is, we've chosen 'facilities' over 'spirit.'"
The Boy Who Saved Baseball won the "Notable Children's Book" Award by the Children's Book Council, Child Magazine's Best Book of 2003 Award, and was named to both the New York Public Library's "Best books for the Teen Age" list and Texas State Lone Star List for 2004.
Remaining faithful to his chosen genre, Ritter includes ballplayers in his most recent Under the Baseball Moon, as well as the "fringe people" who add dimension to the story and help Ritter "express his wild side." Baseball Moon explores the dreams of two 15-year-olds: Andy Ramos, skateboarder and aspiring musician who formulates a new sound—a fusion of Latin jazz, hip-hop, salsa, and rock—and softball pitcher Glory Martinez who dreams of the Olympics. The pair's athletic and musical skills are weaved together and nearly unraveled again at the appearance of an eccentric man in black who promises Andy success, but at an unforeseen cost.
Reader's reviews have scored Baseball Moon as one of the favorites—and Ritter admits it's his favorite of his novels, too. He was able to capture Andy's passion for music and aspirations from his own dreams as a 15-year-old. Though he was a gifted baseball player, he says, "I chose to hang my hopes on music, poetry, and song. I saw that road as having a better chance of changing the world—or as Andy says, 'moving the stars around.'"
Book by book, Ritter seems to be making an impact. He draws attention to issues he feels are unjust—like forcing a lefty to be right-handed—but in a manner that appeals to readers; as a Booklist review said, "never preachy."
"The gentle game of baseball allows me to pioneer literary ground no one has ever worked in before," says Ritter. "I'm going to continue writing my socio-political fiction for that basically non-political audience—and their parents—because it's a lot of fun. I feel like I'm a secret agent."
And if he ever decides to break out? "I will. As Dylan once wrote, 'And but for the sky, there are no fences facin'.'"