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Take a lesson from roller derby in Kit Rosewater’s series for elementary kids

Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
"The Derby Daredevils: Shelly Struggles to Shine" (Abrams, $14.99) is the newest in the roller derby series.

Pre-pandemic, Austin fielded a robust roller derby scene, full of fierce women and lots of action.

Kit Rosewater’s new illustrated series “The Derby Daredevils” brings that world to vivid life for elementary schoolers as a framework to explore friendship, fitting in and emotional intelligence. The former Austinite will be part of a virtual BookPeople event Thursday with illustrator Sophie Escabasse to talk about their newest book in the Texas-set series, “The Derby Daredevils: Shelly Struggles to Shine.” (Abrams, $14.99)

“Once I started writing an ensemble cast for the Daredevils, it was so much fun to have the personalities play off each other,” Rosewater explained in a phone interview. That said, each book centers on one team member and her journey. “For each girl when she’s the protagonist of the book, we explore something that we dealt with growing up — sometimes it’s parts of me or sometimes it’s from different friends,” she said.

In the first volume, “Kenzie Kickstarts a Team,” fifth graders Kenzie and Shelly are desperate to join the new junior roller derby circuit, but the two best friends must invite three more girls into their circle to try out as the required team. (“I was really selfish about having one best friend,” jokes Rosewater of her own elementary school years.)

In “Shelly Struggles to Shine,” the team prepares for its first competition. Kenzie maps plays, Bree is fast, Tomoko blocks and Jules hip-checks their opponents, but Shelly feels like she doesn’t have a unique talent. Eager to win the Star Skater award, Shelly tries to distinguish herself by designing personalized gear for the team, yet her creations don’t go over as well as she’d hoped.

“I think it’s an important lesson for kids and adults that when a team is doing well, it's a symbol that everybody is doing something wonderful, even if it’s not necessarily obvious or a standout thing,” Rosewater notes.

The series is aimed primarily at third and fourth graders, and Rosewater’s storytelling weaves in a host of elements that make the Daredevils’ world beautifully reflective of reality. We see assorted family structures, jobs and identities represented, which is particularly appreciated in a novel for younger readers. Inclusivity is part of the Daredevils’ reality and, by extension, the reader’s. It’s a perfect example of the roles all books can play in depicting — and normalizing — a range of experiences. (Ages 8-10)

Two to enjoy before the election

Twelve-year-old Maddie loves art class “because art doesn’t have just one right answer.” In fact, it’s pretty much the only part of school she can bear.

So when she discovers the front-runner for mayor wants to cut funding for public school arts programs, she starts to sharpen her political advocacy skills. After determining that her parents not only don’t want to run, “they’d also both be terrible at it,” Maddie convinces her babysitter to try her hand at “The Campaign” (Abrams, $16.99). Austin author Leila Sales launches her funny, incisive book for middle graders Sept. 29 via a BookPeople virtual event.

Sales has crafted a wonderfully appealing heroine who resists following the crowd: “You might as well all have rhyming names,” Maddie observes of the trio of “Meansketeers” in her class, “since it seems like you want to be as similar to one another as possible.” And she bristles when mayoral hopeful Lucinda Burghart calls her “cute.” Yet she quickly realizes how important coalition-building is to success in politics.

“I hope that readers of ‘The Campaign’ will discover that politics isn’t something that just affects adults, and therefore it’s not something that only adults can participate in,” Sales said by email. She even includes kid-friendly tips for getting involved in the book’s epilogue. “Government isn’t some far-off concept sequestered away on Capitol Hill; it determines how all of us lead our lives, every single day, in countless ways that we don’t even notice.”

It’s impossible not to root for Maddie, but Sales by design steers clear of simple answers. “We get into trouble when we start this reductive thinking of ‘My side is good and always right and should never be questioned, while the other side is evil and always wrong,’” she noted. It’s an ideal sentiment in a season when political discussions can easily descend into vitriol. (Ages 8-12)

There’s a real election coming in November, of course, and there’s no better time to brush up on the Constitution. Fortunately, Austin husband-and-wife team Cynthia Levinson — the author of several children’s books, including “The Youngest Marcher” — and University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson have worked with artist Ally Schwed to transform their award-winning and critically acclaimed 2017 nonfiction book about that document into a graphic novel edition: “Fault Lines In the Constitution” (First Second/Macmillan, $28.99). Dan Rather said the original “should spark a national dialogue.”

The Levinsons will talk about the new book virtually on Oct. 4 via BookPeople. In the meantime, learn more at their interactive website, (Ages 10 and older)

Celebrate new ’Last Kids on Earth’ with author

Max Brallier started his “The Last Kids on Earth” series as a way to imagine what it would be like if a monster arrived in a suburban town and the kids got to do what the adults usually do. So his middle schoolers battle, scheme and strategize against a zombie takeover while they also navigate puberty.

The series, rendered in heavily illustrated prose similar to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” has more than 5 million copies in print and inspired a Netflix series. The show’s second season is set to arrive in 2021, when a toy line and a video game also debut.

Now comes the newest volume in the book series, “The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road” (Penguin, $13.99). Watch the virtual launch event via BookPeople at 4 p.m. Tuesday with Brallier, along with several of the voice actors from the Netflix series. On hand will be Nick Wolfhard (Jack), Garland Whitt (Quint), Montse Hernandez (June) and Charlie Demers (Dirk), plus showrunner Scott Peterson, who’s also worked on “Phineas and Ferb.” (Ages 8-12)

Upcoming events

Max Brallier, “The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road”

4 p.m. Tuesday

Kit Rosewater and Sophie Escabasse, “The Derby Daredevils: Shelly Struggles to Shine”

4 p.m. Thursday

Leila Sales, “The Campaign”

4 p.m. Sept. 29

Cynthia and Sanford Levinson, “Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Graphic Novel”

3 p.m. Oct. 4

Free registration is required for the “Daredevils,” “Campaign” and “Constitution” Zoom events. Purchasing a copy of these books from BookPeople includes event entry and signed bookplates or books. The “Last Kids” event is $5 for Zoom entry; purchase of the book from BookPeople includes entry as well as a signed bookplate and swag item, while supplies last. “Campaign” and “Constitution” books also can be personalized.

Information: 512-472-5050,

Kit Rosewater writes the series "The Derby Daredevils."