I love that roller derby is back and appealing to middle graders. In recent years, we’ve had Dorothy’s Derby Chronicles from Meghan Dougherty, Jessica Abel’s Trish Trash bringing roller derby to Mars, and Victoria Jamieson’s monster hit graphic novel, Roller Girl. For the teens, DC Comics’s Harley Quinn is taking to the rink, and the girls from Slam! had a derby-centric title. As a kid who always wanted to try derby but was (still) too chicken, this is vicariously glorious.
Enter a new middle grade series, The Derby Daredevils. Kenzie and Shelly are BFFs who love roller derby: Kenzie’s mom is even a derby girl, and Kenzie can’t wait to be old enough to try out for a league. She and Shelly have it all figured out: their superstar moves, their secret handshake, their big rink entrance. Luckily for the girls, their local rink is starting up a junior league and are holding tryouts! But unless they have a team to try out together, the two besties risk being split up if they try out separately. Kenzie’s answer: recruit friends from school and make a team! The have one week to recruit and train a whole team, and Kenzie has a hard time reconciling what’s in her head with reality, which threatens to cause some friction: Shelly and shy classmate Tomoko start becoming friendly, which upsets Kenzie. Isn’t she supposed to be Shelly’s best friend? When Shelly invites Kenzie’s secret crush, Bree, to join the team, Kenzie flips out, but inviting the risk-averse Camila and the way-enthusiastic Jules isn’t helping much. Can the girls get it together in enough time to make the tryouts?
This is SO much fun. There’s so much to work with here: a fully realized cast of characters from different cultural backgrounds, each with a distinct personality. Massive “OMG!” moments involving Kenzie and her crush, Bree, that every middle grader will recognize and empathize with. The relatable feeling of wanting something so bad, that you’ll take that square peg and pound it into a round hole to make it work. And black and white illustrations throughout, to really make readers feel like they’re part of the action! Derby Daredevils is a positive LGBTQ+ series, not only giving us a main character who experiences a crush on another girl, but a transgender dad in a loving marriage. I love the way the author explains Kenzie’s understanding of her dad: “Since her dad was transgender, that meant in some of his stories he looked more like a girl, and in other stories, he looked more like a boy. Actually, he was a boy all along, her dad had explained. But before he told people, they thought he was a girl. In his ‘before’ stories, Kenzie’s dad was like an undercover agent, with a secret only he knew.” It’s a straight-forward, commonsense way to explain gender to kids that respects them and respects the adult. I love it.
There’s action, a little tween romance, and a strong bond of friendship in this book, and I can’t wait for the next book to pub later this year. In the meantime, I’ve dogeared (the horror!) and scribbled all over my ARC, in the hopes of writing a discussion guide for it at some point, so if I get that done, I’ll post it. In the meantime, this is a great choice for a book club and way too much fun for budding (and frustrated middle aged wannabee) derby girls.
The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.