From 2015 WNBA MVP, 2016 Olympic gold medalist, and global ambassador to the Special Olympics Elena Delle Donne comes the second novel in a brand-new middle grade series with as much heart as there is game.
When the basketball team is invited to have a service day at the school-affiliated after-school program, Elle falls in love with working with kids with special needs. So she begins to volunteer on two days a week when she doesn’t have practice and makes new friends there.
Now, Elle finds herself juggling her new passion, basketball obligations, and schoolwork. But when her grades start to slip, she’s going to have to make a tough decision.
Can Elle really do it all? Or will she find herself being pulled in too many directions?
Bad Dog, Good Dog! My dog, Zobe, had been mine for only twenty-four hours, and he was already part of our family.
My parents had surprised me the day before by driving me and my older brother, Jim, to the animal shelter to adopt him. I’d seen Zobe at an adoption event at the mall and had fallen in love with him. He was a big Great Dane, sweet and goofy, and bigger than all of the other dogs. Kind of like me.
I mean, of course I’m bigger than the other dogs. But at six feet tall, I’m also bigger than everyone else in the seventh grade. And I hadn’t been having an easy time of it. Zobe was bigger than the other dogs, and he was adorable. So it made me think that being awkwardly big wasn’t the worst thing ever.
Zobe’s tail was wagging like crazy when we brought him home. He went from room to room, sniffing the floor. When he got to my sister Beth’s room, he bounded up to her wheelchair.
It had worried me for a minute. Beth was born deaf and blind, and I thought Zobe might startle her. But her hand had reached out and touched his fur, and she smiled.
“We let Beth in on the surprise,” Mom had explained. “She knew Zobe was coming.”
After that, Zobe had run upstairs. Mom and Dad had said that Zobe could sleep in my room, so I scrambled after him with the dog bed we’d just bought at the pet supply shop. But Zobe hadn’t been interested in the dog bed. He’d jumped into mine, and that’s where he’d stayed all night.
I’d woken up pretty tired this morning, and it wasn’t just because it’s hard for a Great Dane and a six-foot-tall human to share a twin-size bed. I’d also stayed up late researching Great Danes, so I could be a good owner for Zobe.
One of the things I’d learned was that Great Danes need thirty to sixty minutes of exercise a day, so I’d put Zobe on his leash and headed to Greenmont Park with him right after school. My friend Blake came with me, and I started telling him all the Great Dane facts I’d learned.
“So, Zobe’s coloring is called blue,” I was saying, as we made our way along the circular walking path.
“Blue?” Blake repeated. “He looks kind of gray.”
“Great Danes can be different shades of gray, but they’re called blue,” I explained. “Dogs with shiny gray fur are called steel blue. I think Zobe is more of a slate blue. What do you think?”
Blake nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.
“And he’s supposed to eat three or four small meals a day, instead of one big one,” I went on, “or he could get sick.”
Blake looked Zobe up and down. “I bet he needs a lot of food.”
“He does,” I said. “I can feed him in the morning and at night, and Mom says she’ll feed him during the day.”
A woman came walking toward us with a tiny white Chihuahua on a pink leash. I made sure I had both hands on Zobe’s leash.
“The animal shelter said that Zobe is good with other dogs, but I still need to be careful,” I explained to Blake.
“Definitely,” he agreed. “Zobe could eat that dog up for a midnight snack!”
When we were about three feet away from the Chihuahua, the little dog started to yap loudly. Zobe’s tail started to wag. He lurched ahead of me, pulling me with him. Then he stopped short in front of the Chihuahua and started sniffing her. The little dog quieted down.
“That’s a beautiful dog you’ve got there,” the woman said, smiling at us.
“Thanks,” I replied. “His name is Zobe.”
She gave a little tug on the Chihuahua’s leash. “Come on, Tink, let’s say good-bye to Zobe.”
Tink’s tail was wagging too as they headed away, and I gave Zobe a pat.
“Good boy, Zobe,” I said.
We were nearing the fenced-in dog park, where dog owners could let their pets off leash to run around freely. I scanned it, hoping to see my friend Amanda there. Which, I have to admit, is another reason why I had rushed to walk Zobe after school. I get really happy whenever I run into Amanda. But Amanda and her dog, Freckles, an English springer spaniel, were not there.
“Are you going to let Zobe run around in the dog park?” Blake asked.
I stopped and studied the park. Two miniature poodles were chasing each other while a mom and twin toddlers looked on. One adorable, medium-size mutt with brown shaggy fur was playing catch with his owner, a guy wearing a University of Delaware T-shirt.
“I think he’ll be fine,” I said.
We entered the dog park and closed the gate behind us. I let Zobe off his leash with a click.
He took off like a rocket! I thought he was going to go after one of the dogs, but instead he made a beeline for the toddlers. He started to lick the face of one, an adorable boy with curly black hair, and the sheer force of him sent the poor kid tumbling backward!
I lunged for Zobe.
“Zobe, no!” I yelled, and I grabbed his collar and pulled him away. Blake helped the little boy to his feet, and I turned to the mom. “I’m so sorry! Is he okay?”
To my relief, the little boy was laughing.
“Big doggie!” he said, and the mom looked at me with concern on her face.
“He’s fine,” she said. “But you might want to keep your dog on a leash until he’s better trained.”
“Of course!” I said, and I could feel my cheeks getting hot with embarrassment. I snapped the leash on Zobe’s collar, nodded to Blake, and headed for the gate.
“Well, that was a bad idea,” I said as we walked away. “I feel awful!”
“Aw, that kid loved it,” Blake told me.
I frowned. “Maybe, but what if he had gotten hurt? I think I need obedience classes for Zobe.”
Blake took out his phone and started typing and scrolling. “There’s one dog training school here in Greenmont, and three in Wilmington. They train problem dogs, puppies, therapy dogs. . . .”
I sighed. “I don’t think Zobe is a problem dog, is he? I mean, he can’t help it if he loves people.”
“I think he just needs regular training,” Blake said. He patted Zobe’s head. “Don’t worry. He’s a great dog.”
“Thanks, Blake,” I said, and we continued our walk around the park.
There’s a reason why Blake and I are best friends, and it’s not just because the Tanakas have lived next door to us since I was a baby. Blake is chill. He always knows the right thing to say. And he loves basketball as much as I do.
We looped around the park twice and then headed home. I didn’t see Amanda at all, and I felt a twinge of disappointment. But it didn’t last long. I knew I’d see her at school tomorrow, and at basketball practice that afternoon. And every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday after that. During basketball season, our practice and game schedule got pretty intense.
When we got to our street, Carrie Lane, we came to Blake’s house first. Mrs. Tanaka was pulling weeds in the beautiful flower garden on their front lawn. She stood up when she saw us.
“Elle, this must be the famous Zobe I’ve heard so much about!” she said, standing up.
I kept Zobe on the leash and walked toward her. He jumped up and placed his front paws on her shoulders.
“My, he’s a big boy!” she said, laughing.
I pulled him off of Blake’s mom. “Yes,” I said. “I just need to teach him some manners. He’s really friendly—maybe too friendly!”
Blake nodded to me. “Later,” he said. “Gotta get on my science homework.”
“Oh yeah, right,” I said. I’d nearly forgotten about homework, because I’d been so Zobe-obsessed. “See you tomorrow!”
I walked to my house next door, and when I got inside I took Zobe off the leash. He bounded over to his water dish and started lapping like crazy, just as Mom wheeled in Beth.
I walked over to greet Beth with my usual hug. All the things I do with my eyes and ears, Beth does with smell, touch, and taste. When I hugged her, she sniffed the top of my head so she could tell it was me.
As I was hugging Beth, a big, doggy head squeezed in between us.
“Zobe, no!” I cried. But Beth started nodding her head up and down, and I knew that meant she was happy—she liked Zobe. Then she grabbed my hand and formed a symbol on it.
I didn’t recognize what the symbol meant, and I looked at Mom.
“Did Beth learn a new symbol?” I asked.
Mom nodded. “We came up with a symbol for dog,” she said. “Beth is very curious about Zobe, and when you were at school today he spent most of the day with her. He’s such a sweetheart!”
I formed the “dog” symbol into Beth’s hand, and she nodded her head again. Then I formed another symbol: good.
Yes, Beth replied, tracing on my palm.
“Elle, please wash up and help me get ready for dinner,” Mom said.
“Sure,” I said. When I came back from the bathroom, I saw that Zobe was sitting next to Beth with his head in her lap. She was nodding her head, and he had a look of blissful peace on his face.
“Wow!” I said. “They’re both so happy!”
Mom nodded and handed me a bag of baby carrots. “Can you chop these up please?” she asked, and she glanced over at Beth and Zobe. “Zobe really is a great addition to the Deluca household. He’s a wonderful dog.”
“He is,” I said. “But, um, something happened at the park today. . . .”
I told her about Zobe knocking down the little kid, and Mom frowned.
“Hmm,” she said. “That is a problem. I guess Zobe can’t go to the dog park until he’s better trained.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Blake said maybe he could go to obedience school.” And as I said the words, another thought hit me.
“Some of the obedience schools also train dogs to become therapy dogs!” I said, feeling excited at the thought. “Zobe is so good with Beth—he’d be a fantastic therapy dog.”
I put down my carrot-chopping knife and grabbed my phone.
“Look, there’s one right here in Greenmont!” I said.
Mom closed the oven door. “Elle, I’m not saying that getting some training for Zobe is a bad idea,” she said. “But maybe training him to be a therapy dog right now is not the smartest thing. You’re so busy with your schoolwork, and with basketball. When would you find the time?”
“It’s only one day a week!” I protested. “I could fit it in.”
Mom sighed. “I’ll talk to your father about it, Elle. But I’m not making any promises. You have to trust us to know what’s best for you sometimes.”
I looked away from Mom and rolled my eyes. I get good grades, I keep my room (mostly) neat, and Mom is always telling Grandma and Grandpa what a “responsible young girl” I am. So why wasn’t she trusting me with this? Zobe would make an awesome therapy dog, I just knew it.
I’d have to find some way to convince her, but I knew that it would take time.
The Hoops series: Elle of the Ball, Full-Court Press, and Out of Bounds
By Elena Delle Donne
About the Books
If, like Elle, you’re a seventh-grade girl and already six feet tall, everyone notices you. And if, like Elle, you’re pretty good at basketball, everyone’s sure you’ll be a pro someday. But Elle isn’t so sure. Does she love basketball more than anything? What would she do if she didn’t spend so much time on the court? Elle loves being part of a team with so many of her friends, but the coach can be tough and even teammates can be mean. Written by a real-life WNBA star, the first three books in the Hoops series follow Elle as she plays a lot of basketball while also trying to figure out who she is and what she really wants.
1. How does Elle’s height impact her life? Describe the advantages and disadvantages, if any. How does she feel about it? Give examples from all three books.
2. Why does Elle play basketball? Think about both positive and negative aspects, and discuss whether you think she should keep playing. Make sure to give arguments for both sides.
3. If Elle didn’t play basketball, what might she do with her time? Name other activities that she enjoys, or things that she’s good at. What could she pursue in the future if she decides for certain not to remain on the basketball team?
4. Avery and Blake are Elle’s best friends. Describe her relationship to each of them. How do they make Elle’s life better? What conflicts does she have with them, and how are these issues resolved?
5. Elle loves her sister, Beth, very much. Why does she consider Beth to be a positive force in her life? Describe Beth and her role in the family. Find places where Elle discusses Beth with those outside of her family, and analyze what she says.
6. Describe other members of Elle’s family, including her extended family. How do her parents support her athletic activities and other ventures? What role does her brother play in her life? Talk about the pressure her grandparents and uncle put on her to play basketball, and how Elle feels about it.
7. How does Elle first encounter Zobe? How does he end up becoming the family pet? What does he add to the family and to Elle’s life? Discuss why he needs training and what it consists of. How might the training resemble coaching a basketball team?
8. Bianca gives Elle a hard time both on and off the court. What motivates her insults and hostility? How does Elle feel about Bianca’s behavior? When Blake and Bianca start spending time together, how does Elle react and why? Would you have reacted similarly?
9. Tiff is Bianca’s good friend, yet she also stays on good terms with Elle. How would you describe Tiff? How do she and Elle interact? Why can navigating friendships be difficult?
10. What do you learn about hijabs from Tiff and her mother? How does Tiff tie the hijabs into her wardrobe?
11. Being on the team helps Elle make new friends, one of whom is Amanda. Describe what Amanda and Elle have in common, and how you think Elle feels about her. How do you know? Another new friend is Caroline. How does Caroline’s younger brother, Pete, bring Elle and Caroline closer together?
12. The coach has the most criticism for her daughter, Patrice, and Elle. Analyze why she might be so hard on both of them. Do you think the negative focus of her comments is helpful? What else could she do to motivate those two players?
13. In Elle of the Ball, Elle is frustrated about the cotillion. Describe the cotillion and Elle’s reaction to different aspects of it. What are her objections to the dance and the preparation for it? How does she influence future changes in the cotillion? Have you ever objected to the way something was handled and worked to make it better in the future?
14. Elle’s mother always says, “‘You can’t control what people say or think about you. You can only control how you react to that. You can only control who you are.’” Discuss her statement and how Elle tries to apply it to her life. How do you think you might use that advice in your own life?
15. In Full-Court Press, Elle struggles with time management. What are some of the activities that she wants to do or has to do? What goes wrong when she doesn’t manage her time well? Explain what helps her start to get better at it. What advice would you have given her?
16. Describe Elle’s home, school, neighborhood, and town. What advantages does she have that a lot of kids don’t have? How do those advantages make a difference in her life and help her succeed? Does Elle understand the impact of these advantages? Do you think they put more pressure on her? How might she help other kids who don’t have the same advantages she has?
17. Elle tells her own story in a first-person narrative format. Why do you think the author made this choice? How might the story have changed if it had been written in third person? Did it make a difference to you as a reader that the author is a WNBA star? Explain your answer.
18. Why do you think schools have sports teams? Do you think sports teams have educational value? What might they teach you? Do you think they improve students’ lives? Explain your reasoning. List some reasons why different girls have chosen to play on Elle’s team.
Have students work in pairs to research therapy dogs and other therapy animals. After their initial research, students should narrow their focus to a particular type of therapy animal and the animal’s work. What does the animal do? How does it interact with humans? How is it trained? Have the students organize the information onto a poster to display in the classroom. Hold a class discussion about the different therapy animals and their work.
Wanted: The Perfect Coach
After thinking about Coach Ramirez, each student should write an advertisement for a middle school basketball coach. The ad should lay out the qualities that the student thinks are most important in a successful coach, and the kind of background they think would be helpful. Ask them to think about the potential coach’s education, athletic experience, work experience, and so on. Have students type up their ads and meet in small groups to compare what each person thought was most important.
Starting Out on the Right Foot
Elle, who has her own pregame routine, has also researched the pregame routines of WNBA players. Have students do similar research on the preperformance routines of athletes in different sports or of musicians, actors, public speakers, comedians, or even surgeons. Students should take notes on their research to bring to a classroom discussion about what they learned, why performers have such routines, and whether or not they think the routines help.
Author Elena Delle Donne is a highly successful basketball player in the WNBA. Have each student choose a different WNBA player to learn more about. They should find professional facts about the player, interesting details about her background, and career highlights. Then they can create a multimedia presentation about the player to share with the class. Have the class discuss the similarities and differences between these women’s paths to the WNBA and imagine what life might have been like for them when they were in elementary and middle school.
Doing Good, Feeling Good
Volunteering at Camp Cooperation is a highlight of Elle’s year. What other volunteer activities can kids do? Have students draw from their own experiences to compile a list of ideas. Then have a class discussion about the benefits of volunteering both from the volunteer’s perspective and for the community or recipient.
Like Elle, many students struggle with time management. Have students jot down notes about what Elle does to improve her scheduling. Then have them ask adults and older students they know for tips on time management. Working in small groups, students should prepare and distribute a Time Tips brochure based on what they learned. Find templates by searching for the keyword “brochure” at www.readwritethink.org.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Elena Delle Donne has been a professional women’s basketball player since 2013, when she was selected by the Chicago Sky second overall in the WNBA draft. She was the 2015 WNBA MVP and won the gold medal with the USA’s women’s basketball team in the 2016 Olympics. She is the global ambassador for the Special Olympics and became the first national ambassador for the Lyme Research Alliance. Elena also plays host to De11e Donne Academy, a basketball camp that runs throughout the year, where she mentors and coaches girls ages seven to eighteen. She now plays for the Washington, DC, Mystics.