In the world of middle grade novels, there are a lot of books written about coming out. And there are just as many books written about baseball. But it’s rare to find one that effectively mixes the two — and throws in a look at the sport’s troubled history with the LGBTQ community to boot.
So perhaps the highest praise I can give Phil Bildner’s new book, “A High Five for Glenn Burke,” is that it deftly straddles the line between all of these middle grade subgenres and emerges with a very heartwarming and compelling story. Bildner gives just due to both the coming out and baseball stories and doesn’t come across at any point like he was skimping or paying lip service to either one.
Bildner’s hero is Silas Walker, presented as an everyday sixth grader with a best friend, a loving family (albeit one with communication issues), a burgeoning Little League career, and a secret. And anytime someone uses the words “a secret” to describe the protagonist of a middle grade book, there’s a 98 percent chance you can guess exactly what that secret is.
Silas is the biggest baseball fan in his class, a baseball history enthusiast, and an extremely closeted gay kid. He’s going through middle school, one of the most painful and awkward times in life to make that realization. And reading his tale from the perspective of my sixth grade Chicago Cub superfan closeted self, I feel seen.
He’s also the star center fielder and leadoff hitter for his Little League powerhouse known as the Renegades (Given my memories of my own Little League career, I now feel significantly less seen...). Again, Bildner paints Silas as a typical fun loving baseball rat — he lives for The Sandlot, spitting sunflower seeds, and cracking his teammates up. And Silas loves the game so much, he even does a school presentation on his hero, ex-Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke: the inventor of the high five.
Therein lies the conflict of the story. Because the one part of Glenn Burke’s life that Silas doesn’t tell his classmates about is that Burke was ostracized and eventually run out of baseball because he was gay. And just as Silas keeps that part of Burke’s story a secret, he keeps his gayness a secret as well because he’s scared that he’ll suffer the same fate.
Bildner utilizes Burke’s life story as an effective device for conveying Silas’s greatest fear in the world and the reason he keeps his identity a secret. “A High Five for Glenn Burke” is a story about the difficulties of coming out, even in what appears to be ideal circumstances to do so.
In that way, the book is similar to other well known examples of this kind of story such as Becky Albertalli’s “Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.” While it doesn’t quite measure up to a book that has become a classic, “A High Five for Glenn Burke” is still a powerful and emotional tale in its own right. And set against the backdrop of baseball, it underscores how this story archetype still needs to be heard as often as possible.
Another of the book’s strengths is its portrayal of Silas’s relationship with his best friend Zoey. Far from a cardboard cut-out there to support Silas in his journey, she is given a full set of complex emotions and reactions as well as a character life of her own.
Although Zoey is the first person Silas comes out to, this doesn’t serve to strengthen their bond as you would expect from a more conventional middle grade tale. In fact, that moment ends up undercutting their friendship with an unspeakable tension that eventually comes to a head at Silas’s crisis point and the result is a much more realistic and complex portrayal of both characters.
There are also a few characters who unfortunately don’t get nearly the same level of nuance from Bildner. Silas’s secret and unspoken crush on a teammate named Malik is handled subtly well from in the book’s first person narration. But Malik isn’t given much to do as other than be another precocious young ballplayer and it’s hard to see what Silas sees in him other than being cute.
In addition, Silas’s Little League Coach Webb has a tendency to say the exact right thing at the exact right time a little too often to be fully believable. In this aspect, though, it’s a little easier to see what Bildner is going for. Webb is meant to stand in for how far baseball has come since the days when Glenn Burke played in the big leagues. And in a way, he also exists in the story to redeem the game of baseball itself in Silas’s eyes from Tommy Lasorda or Billy Martin, two legendary managers who helped drive Burke out of MLB.
Still, it’s hard not to read Webb’s dialogue after a while without picturing him stepping out of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoons PSA, turning to an imaginary camera, and proclaiming that “Knowing is half the battle.”
Ultimately, though, these are minor quibbles. Bildner creates an extremely likable protagonist in Silas and handles both the revelation of his gayness and the complexity of his coming out journey with aplomb. It’s very easy to root for him and take heart in his triumphs.
Bildner also shines some much needed light on Burke, an involuntary MLB trailblazer who led a tragic life and has never received his just due from history. It’s clear that Bildner believes the game is evolving from Burke’s days of the late 1970s and early 80s. And in giving Burke a place to shine, his book is worthy of several high fives, forearm bashes, chest bumps, daps, and any other celebrations baseball players invent as the game continues to advance.
“A High Five For Glenn Burke” by Phil Bildner is his first LGBTQ-themed novel for young adults ages 10 to 13. The publisher is Macmillan and it is set to be published February 25, 2020. Details on how to pre-order are available at philbildner.com
Editor’s Note: At the publicist’s request after this story was published, we changed the category for Bildner’s novel from “YA” to “middle grade.”