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Cheer! by Kate Torgovnick

By Teabelly | Books | March 15, 2010 |

By Teabelly | Books | March 15, 2010 |

I am sure I’ve already mentioned somewhere on here that I used to want to be a cheerleader. It was part of my whole ‘I want to be American!’ phase, where I would pout about the injustices of the world. And why wasn’t I a blonde with blue eyes? Why wasn’t I little and cute? In all honesty I’d probably still love to be a cheerleader, even though I’m not remotely girly and am uncoordinated as all hell. Not as sure about the American thing though. I’ve come to terms with my Britishness I guess. But like many people I had a distinct image in mind when thinking about cheerleaders. The perky girl, always a smile on her face, probably not too bright (I know, I’m horrible, let’s say I’ve been brainwashed by TV). How hard is it to spell out words with your arms anyway? But this isn’t just cheerleading, this is competitive cheerleading, and boy, do they want to be the best.

Kate Torgovnick likes cheerleaders too, and so she followed three teams over the course of a year as they geared up for Nationals and the hopes of winning the grand prize. Before we get to the teams there’s a nice introduction giving lots of background info on why the book is being written and the history of cheerleading. For instance, did you know that cheerleaders were originally men? It started as a way to pump up the crowd and eventually evolved into also entertaining them. And then, like many professions at the time, women took over doing World War II. It talks about the great Lawrence Herkimer who started the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA - and the competition seen in Bring it On), and the split that led to the creation of the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA). There are competitions for both, but cheerleaders usually have a preference.

The three squads followed are the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks from Texas, - they’re kinda stars in the cheer world, having won 8 national titles, 4 of them in a row (at the writing of this book). They recruit some of the best cheerleaders in the nation, since everybody wants to cheer for the best. Then there’s the Jaguars from Southern University in Louisiana. They’re having a rough time of it, trying to put together a squad with few talented kids to choose from. Katrina didn’t help them there. And they struggle to afford the trip to Nationals but are desperate to be there and show off their skills. Finally, there’s the University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers. They don’t get as much respect as the co-ed teams, with smaller scholarships and budgets, but they’re hoping to change that with a Nationals win. (Plus, the girl bases support hundreds of pounds of teammates in pyramids and all sorts of other moves, so they’ve got my respect.)

We follow the teams through try-outs and spirit camp, where old and new team members try to mesh as a team, and on through their bid to make it to Nationals, and then to the big day itself. There they’ll have just over two minutes to rock the judges and show them what they can do. One tiny mis-step can cost them the win. And you don’t want to be the person that loses it for the rest of your team. These kids might be perky, but they’re not necessarily forgiving.

We get to know the teams, some members more than others, and learn about their lives and what they love about cheerleading, and why they keep coming back. There’s also the darker side to it, as with any sport I suppose, with drugs and eating disorders making an appearance. There’s pressure on the girls to stay small and light so they can be thrown higher, and on the men to be strong, so steroids and other drugs are used, but since cheerleading is not classified as a sport, but an ‘activity’ (don’t get them started on that), there aren’t the same regulations for drug testing as there would be with American Football for example. It’s generally up to the coaches to keep on eye on their teams, and some are happy to ignore it if it means they win. And there are the injuries. Broken thumbs and other bones, constant bruises, twisted ankles, fractured skulls - they get pretty beat up. And yet they still love it and are devastated if an injury takes them out of competition.

I really didn’t expect to enjoy the book this much, but I was properly rooting for these teams. I wanted them to do well, because I felt like I’d got to know them. There’s a nice balance here so it doesn’t give you too much information on the teams, select characters really stand out, and you remember them even though there’s a lot of back and forth between the different teams. I will even confess to slightly tearing up on the bus this morning as I came to the end and finding out how one of the teams did at Nationals. The only slight problem I had in the beginning was trying to visualise the movements and stunts, but this is more my lack of imagination than a fault of the writer. She does a very good job of describing it all so you feel like you’re there. But I watched some videos online to get more of an idea, and that made it even better for me. I think Torgovnick did a great job in getting you to see cheerleaders in a new light, and giving you an insight into their world. But all in all it’s just a really great story, one that makes you want to keep on reading.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Teabelly’s reviews, check out her blog.