From WNBA MVP, Olympic gold medalist, and global ambassador to the Special Olympics Elena Delle Donne comes the third novel in a middle grade series with as much heart as there is game.
Elle is finally finding her groove and is excited about how her year is turning out. But when her team loses a major game against their rivals, Elle doesn’t know if basketball is worth it anymore. It feels like she can’t win—even when she’s improving and doing well, everyone always expects more from her.
With her changing attitudes on basketball, will she let everyone she knows down if she decides to take a break?
Out of Bounds 1 It’s All About Pressure Reminder: You have basketball practice starting at 3:15, Elle!
The message appeared on my cell phone screen when the last school bell of the day rang. Normally I wouldn’t need a reminder to go to basketball practice. There was no way I could forget that I had practice with my seventh-grade team, the Spring Meadow Nighthawks, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school, plus a game every Sunday. Basketball has been my life ever since third grade.
But the reason why my phone was reminding me was because my best friend, Avery, had just downloaded a scheduling program for me. She’d just presented it to me a few hours ago during lunch in the cafeteria. And if it sounds strange that my best friend was scheduling my life for me, there’s a pretty good reason.
Recently I almost had a meltdown because of all the things I was busy with: basketball, my new dog, volunteering, homework, helping my family, and hanging with friends. I had been getting bad grades, hurting my friends’ feelings, and psyching myself out on the court because I couldn’t figure out how to prioritize my time.
Avery’s app looked like it was going to fix all that. And I owed my teammates on the Nighthawks a big thanks, too, because they had all offered to take volunteer slots at Camp Cooperation—an after-school program for kids with special needs. I had been volunteering there twice a week, but since my friends were helping out, I could cut down my days to two Tuesdays a month and free up time for the other things in my life.
Today was Monday, and like the app said, I had basketball practice. We practice in the high school gym, which is just a short walk across a field from the middle school. That’s because the school I go to, Spring Meadow School, is a small, private school. It’s a K–12 school and there are three buildings on our campus: one for kids in K–5, one for kids in grades 6–8, and one for the high school.
I’d been wanting to thank my teammates since Avery had told me the news at lunchtime. As we walked across the field together, I had my chance.
“I want to thank you guys for volunteering at Camp Cooperation,” I said.
“I had fun the day we all volunteered as a team,” Natalie said. “Those kids are cute.”
“Especially your brother Pete, Caroline,” Dina remarked.
Caroline’s brother Pete is eight years old and has Down syndrome. She and I recently bonded because I have a special needs sister too. But my sister, Beth, is older than I am, and she has different conditions than Pete does.
“He’s cute if you only have to spend an hour a week with him,” Caroline joked. “But I am really glad that everyone on the team is going to take turns. I know Pete really loves the program—all the kids do.”
Walking in front of me were two of our best players, Bianca and Tiff.
“Yeah, Avery told us you needed help organizing your schedule,” Bianca said snidely. “Now maybe you can concentrate on your game.”
I ignored the comment. Bianca is one of the tallest players on the team, but she’s still six inches shorter than I am (I’m six foot). At the start of the season, Coach Ramirez made me center and that really upset Bianca. She’s been calling me out ever since.
Tiff is Bianca’s best friend, but she’s been a little bit nicer.
“I told Avery that I’d help you study for science,” Tiff said.
“Yeah, she told me,” I replied. “That would be great. Cellular biology is kicking my butt.”
Tiff grinned. “Then we will kick its butt together!”
We had reached the high school gym and headed for the locker room. I changed into my practice uniform and laced up my basketball shoes. I’d had to get new ones after my feet literally grew two sizes over the summer, which was probably the only thing I liked about my growth spurt. I am obsessed with basketball shoes and I would buy a new pair every month if I could afford to.
Then I looked in the mirror and pulled my long blond hair into a ponytail. I took a deep breath. Coach Ramirez started each practice with a video review of our last game. Yesterday we’d had a game against the Patriots, and I had choked. For the first time in my entire basketball career, I hadn’t scored. I’d even missed a lousy free throw shot—usually my specialty! So I was expecting Coach Ramirez to be extra hard on me.
When we entered the gym, Coach was pacing back and forth in front of the bleachers. On a normal day she looks like she means business, without a strand of her short brown hair out of place, and a Nighthawks T-shirt that always looks freshly ironed. Today she looked even more serious than ever, her mouth set in a thin line.
“Losing is one thing,” she began right off the bat. “Sometimes we lose even though we played our best. But we did not play our best.”
She hit a button on the keyboard and the game began to play from the start. I was in the middle of the court facing the Patriots center, who was almost six foot tall, maybe an inch shorter than I was. We both jumped up for the ball, and she tipped it before I could.
“You could have had that, Elle!” Coach said. “You’re my center. I need you to be hungrier for that ball.”
I nodded. I was getting kind of used to Coach singling me out in the reviews by now, so it didn’t sting quite as bad. But it still hurt.
Coach’s next comment was directed toward Patrice—her daughter, and our starting small forward.
“Patrice, you had a shot there, and you didn’t take it!” she barked. “You need more confidence out there.”
Patrice nodded and looked down at her shoes.
How can she be confident when her mom is always pointing out her mistakes? I wondered.
Coach fast-forwarded through the video, stopping in a few places. Some of her comments were general—we needed to be blocking more shots; we had to be careful not to travel with the ball. But I felt like she made comments about me more than anyone else (except maybe Patrice). I just kept hearing, “Elle! You lost focus there.” “Elle! That was sloppy footwork.” “Elle! You could have taken a shot there.”
I glanced over at Avery and she gave me a sympathetic look. She knew that I hated Video Mondays.
Finally we finished the review.
“Everyone on this team has problems traveling,” Coach said. “So today we’re going to do some control drills.”
We had never done control drills before, so I was curious to see what Coach had in mind. First she had us all line up on one side of the court.
“All right, now stand with your right foot forward, in shooting position,” she instructed, and we all obeyed. (Natalie, who’s left-handed, stood with her left foot forward.)
“Now we’re going to play a game of Stop and Go,” Coach continued. “When I say ‘go,’ run forward. When I say ‘stop,’ stop and return to shooting position.”
We did this several times back and forth across the gym. It wasn’t always easy to stop with my right foot forward, so I could see why the drill was a good idea. After we did that a few times, Coach changed things up. This time we dribbled while we ran, stopped in shooting position, and then started again. First Coach had us do it slowly, and then faster.
After the control drills, Coach called for a scrimmage.
“Oh great,” I said to Avery. “What if I can’t score again? Maybe I’m cursed and my scoring days are over.”
“Stop psyching yourself out, Elle!” Avery told me. “You’re a great shooter and you know it.”
Coach divided us up into two teams for the scrimmage: Me, Avery, Dina, Hannah, and Caroline on one team, and Bianca, Tiff, Amanda, Patrice, and Natalie on the other.
Bianca and I faced each other as center, and when Coach threw the ball up, I jumped as high and hard as I could. I was not going to give Bianca the satisfaction of getting it. Not today.
I tipped the ball to Dina, who pivoted and passed it to Hannah. Hannah dribbled forward a few steps and then stopped and made her shot. It bounced off the rim, but I caught the rebound and sank the ball for two points.
I grinned at Avery. Making the shot was a huge relief! I felt energized, and I had fun with the scrimmage. But Bianca was on fire, too, and her team ended up beating us by two points.
“Great scrimmage!” Coach complimented us as we cooled off from the game. “Now let’s go over the Thanksgiving schedule again. Don’t forget that we don’t have a regular practice on Wednesday, the half day. We’ll be meeting outside on the field for a team-building activity. Lunch is on me. Then there’s no practice on Friday, and no game on Sunday.”
The thought of a break from practice and competition cheered me up—although I was a little afraid of what Coach’s idea of a team-building activity would turn out to be. In elementary school, we’d done stuff like make towers out of marshmallows and toothpicks. I couldn’t imagine Coach Ramirez doing anything that silly.
We all grabbed our duffel bags from the locker room and made our way through the high school halls to the main entrance, where our parents would come to get us. Just about everyone was talking about their Thanksgiving plans.
“There’s a lot of yellow on your U-Plan schedule this weekend,” Avery told me. “I hope I can come over and meet Zobe finally.”
Zobe is my almost-brand-new dog, a Great Dane my family adopted from the local shelter. Avery had been dying to meet him, but I’d kept putting her off because I was so busy.
“Yes, yes, yes!” I said.
“Great! I’ll send you a U-Plan request, and if you approve, it will automatically upload into your schedule,” she said.
“I have no idea what you just said, but it sounds good,” I replied.
Amanda, who’d just started playing basketball this year, chimed in. “I would love to go on another doggy date with Freckles and Zobe, but we’re going to my grandmother’s this weekend in Pennsylvania.”
Freckles is an English springer spaniel with cute freckles, just like Amanda. I was just starting to get to know Amanda, and we’d had some great walks and talks in the park with our dogs.
“Is Freckles going with you, or do you have to put her in a kennel?” I asked.
“Grandma loves dogs, so Freckles is allowed to come with us,” she replied.
“That’s nice,” I said. “We’ve got our family coming over this Thanksgiving, so we don’t have to travel anywhere. I wonder how Zobe’s going to be with a lot of people in the house, though. He’s a pretty good dog, but we haven’t started his obedience training classes yet.”
“He’ll be fine,” Amanda assured me with a smile. “He’s a big sweetheart.”
Bianca, Tiffany, and Dina were walking behind us, talking with one another, and right at that moment, Bianca’s voice got really loud.
“It’s about time Coach let me play center already,” she was saying.
Normally I would have ignored her. And I might not have argued with her, because I had been a shooting guard in the past and hadn’t even wanted to be center when Coach gave me the position. But now I was the center, whether I liked it or not, and I was tired of Bianca giving me a hard time about it.
I turned around. “Bianca, can’t you just give me a chance, please?” I asked. “The season just started, and the pressure you’re giving me just isn’t helping.”
Bianca rolled her eyes. “If you can’t take the pressure, Elle, then you shouldn’t be center,” she said. “That’s the whole point. It’s all about pressure.”
Then the three of them walked past us.
Avery shook her head. “I do not understand what her problem is.”
“I think she really loves the game more than anything,” Natalie said. “That’s why she works so hard, and why she cares about how everybody else on the team is performing.”
“Good point,” Hannah said. “I’m glad she’s on our team, and not on anybody else’s.”
I didn’t chime in. I was replaying Natalie’s words in my head.
She really loves this game more than anything.
That was sure true about Bianca. But was it true about me? Did I love basketball more than anything?
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.