The weather is turning colder and that mean’s hockey season has begun! Strikers: A Graphic Novel takes readers back to the season of 1986 in Flint, Michigan where one team of underdogs will learn how to stay on their skates when they only see Ls in the future. Even though they may not understand each other they find reasons to keep taking the ice together.
Today author Kiel Phegley joins us to discuss his favorite characters, what he loves about Jacques Khouri’s illustrations, and more. Read on to watch the official book trailer!
What is Strikers all about, and why did you write this book?
Strikers tells the story of the titular junior hockey team and the ups and downs of their losing 1986/87 season in Flint, Michigan’s developmental junior hockey league. Almost every phrase in that description has some significance for me. First and foremost, as a native of Flint, I wanted to write a book about my hometown that really showed people who have only heard of the city because of its struggles in the national news how much pride and toughness folks there really have. I also wanted to write a sports book for middle grade readers that was about something other than the myth that if you practice hard and want it enough, you will ultimately become a world class champion athlete. I played sports for years, and that was never my experience (though I still loved to play!). And when I was looking to combine that love of place and that new kind of sports story, hockey was the perfect outlet. Flint is a minor league hockey town going back over 50 years, and the sport’s cold, often overlooked toughness was the perfect milieu for the story of these kids and the town they live in.
Who were your favorite characters in the story as you wrote it?
As I drafted out the story, three kids really became the heart and soul of the book. Evan Richards is the “Alternate Captain” of the Strikers team, and early in the story he’s thrust into a leadership role despite the fact that he’s not the most experienced or natural athlete. But like a lot of kids who go out for hockey, his love of the game is unparalleled, and that determination to make something of his season really defines him and amps up the drama of the story. On the other side of the coin, there’s defender Bobby Nowicki – a true blue enforcer who earns the nickname “Little Probert” after notorious Detroit Red Wing fighter Bob Probert. All of Evan’s dedication to taking the game seriously is undercut by Bobby’s almost cynical dedication to the idea that time in the penalty box is the most important column on the stat sheet. Lastly, Paul Stenz is the exact opposite of what anyone would consider a hockey player. He’s soft-spoken, small in stature and overly optimistic about his chances on the ice. These three kids form an unlikely bond as the season goes along, and each challenges the assumptions the others have about both their sport and their lives in general.
But the assorted misfits, mutants and maniacs that flesh out the Strikers team were really a hoot to write as well. The cocky slap-shooting forward called Rattail, the eternally downtrodden goalie Ken Forrester, and the enigmatic loose cannon called Jeremiah (no one even knows his last name!) are just a part of the group dynamic that I hope makes Strikers a book that can appeal to every kind of kid.
As a graphic novel, a huge part of the heavy lifting in making the story work comes from the artist. What was it that Jacques Khouri brought to the collaboration that surprised you most?
Early on when I was developing this book with our editor Greg Hunter, we talked a lot about how essential it was to get an artist that could really draw hockey action and equipment in a way that was dynamic and authentic. After floating a few names back and forth, Greg wrote me and said, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, but I’ve got this guy name Jacques, and he’s French Canadian…” to which I replied “Hire this man immediately.” And really, Jacques was able to effortlessly portray the sport of hockey in a style that was fast-paced and funny in equal measure.
But even beyond being able to do his country proud in drawing their national past-time, what I loved about working with Jacques Khouri was how much personality he was able to bring to the characters. Many graphic novels end up having a sameness to the cartooning – the kind of lines that make all the characters look the same except for the color of their hair. Jacques instead gave each of this kids his own face and his own set of expressions and emotions. And whether we were looking at a scene that called for wacky misadventures or heightened preteen angst, the art always conveyed so much more than what was simply in the word balloons. I tried to get out of his way and let him draw at every opportunity.
This is a sports book, of course. It’s a genre that certainly exists in the middle grade space but is less prominent than things like fantasy or adventure. What stories did you look to for inspiration?
As a kid, I read a lot of sports novels – mostly the kind of wish-fulfillment athletic arc by the genre’s most famous name Matt Christopher. And those books were fine for what were still very much fantasy expectations. Kids in those books always won, always beat the odds. I wanted this to be a more honest kind of sports story that we rarely see in publishing. Even analogous pop culture like “The Mighty Ducks” or “The Sandlot” never really felt like what my actual experience was as a young athlete (though, I think the original “Bad News Bears” comes closest to what we’re doing in Strikers).
What’s also funny to me is that sports comics and graphic novels in particular have always been way more popular outside of American than they are here at home. Japanese manga has had sports-themed stories at the top of the sales charts for decades, and in the UK, comics about footballers still travel around in kids’ schoolbags. North America never really embraced sports comics for the longest time, but of late there has been a new tradition of sports graphic novels by the likes of Gene Luen Yang, Mike Dawson and some really strong hockey stories like Ngozi Ukazu’s wonderful “Check, Please.” But I still feel like Strikers charts some unique territory in this genre, and I’m happy to have it sit on the shelf alongside such august company.
Did you play hockey yourself as a kid? What kind of athlete were you?
Hockey was one of my favorite sports throughout my elementary and high school years, though I pretty much exclusively played it in pickup games on frozen lakes and summer rollerblade matches in Michigan. Part of this was because, I have to admit, I never really had the makings of a varsity athlete. [Laughs] But the experience of growing up in the ’80s meant that if you were a boy and you wanted to do something after school, 90% of it was sports based. We had no anime clubs or creative writing classes like some fortunate students get today. If you wanted to hang with friends, you better hope you were coordinated enough to kick a ball or pick up a stick.
But while I played any sport my school offered (and I wasn’t bad at running track, all things told), hockey was always just out of reach because it can cost a lot of money to get the equipment and pay rink fees. Ironically, though Flint is a hockey town in the truest sense, many middle class families back then couldn’t afford the extra expense that it took to participate in the sport in an organized way. I’m happy to report that this has changed some in modern Flint, and there are more leagues and teams offering scholarships to get kids on the ice than ever before. A lot of the modern culture of the city and its dedication to youth hockey helped me figure out how to best tell the story in Strikers.
When all is said and done, what do you think is the biggest draw for young readers to Strikers?
At the risk of sounding a little too complimentary to myself (even in an interview!), I think the first thing that kids will connect to in this book is the humor. This is the kind of story that is driven by character first and foremost, and the boys who play on the Strikers squad show a goody camaraderie that only comes with getting your butt kicked repeatedly and willfully coming back for more. Many of the action scenes and on-ice mishaps that kids will read in the book were inspired by real sports games I played in. And in real life, the perfect shot rarely hits the net right at the buzzer. Anyone who ever played youth sports can tell you that its mostly fumbling, frenetic playmaking married to a lot of locker room goofing off. We worked so, so hard to make the characters and action of this book relatable in a way that kids who love sports (even maybe despite their lack of prowess!) would instantly see themselves in and have a good laugh about it all.
Praise for Strikers
“While the story spends a lot of time on the ice with both games and practice, the interpersonal relationships, razzing, and camaraderie among the characters draw more attention. . . Readers who like their sports comics with both lots of action and vivid emotional dynamics are the best audience for this.” — Booklist
“Persistence in the face of defeat and disappointment defines a season of sports and adolescent life.” — Kirkus Reviews
“As the team bonds on and off the ice . . . they find support and stability in their relationships with one another while striving to get that elusive W.” — Publishers Weekly
“Fueled with hockey and humanity, Strikers delivers absolute proof of what it really means to be a champion. Kiel Phegley and Jacques Khouri shoot and score big.” — Brad Meltzer, bestselling author of the Ordinary People Change the World series
“A love letter to the Midwest. A heartfelt tribute to all the benchwarmers out there just waiting for their shot.” — Dave Scheidt, author of Mayor Good Boy and Agents of SLAM
“Fun and heartfelt with a touch of nostalgia.” — Gene Yang, bestselling author of American Born Chinese and Dragon Hoops
“Strikers is the best kind of underdog tale. Funny, heartfelt, and action-packed, filled with scrappy kids figuring themselves out both on and off the ice.” — Mike Dawson, author of The Fifth Quarter
Watch the Official Book Trailer
Connect with the Author
Kiel Phegley writes books, comics and other literature for kids. A graduate of Hamline University’s MFA in Writing For Children & Young Adults, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his family and teaches courses in Children’s Literature at Eastern Michigan University.
Connect with the Illustrator
Jacques Khouri makes animated films, works on commercials, teaches, and draws comics for a living. His influences range from animated cartoons to European and American comics. He currently lives in Montreal. You can find his work at ijotalot.com and jackkhouri.com.