THE SOCCER FENCE, by Phil Bildner, Illus. by Jesse Joshua Watson
Published March 2014
"A tale of sports bridging cultural and racial chasms.
This story begins during apartheid with a young South African boy who accompanies his mother from their shanty in a Johannesburg township to her job in the home of a wealthy white family. Adept at soccer, the boy longs to play on the fenced green lawn with the white boys, but he can only watch from outside the fence until one day, he gets to bicycle kick the ball back over the fence. The stark color contrasts throughout the book alternate between the rich greens and blues of the white boys’ lush lawn and purple and orange scenes, in which democracy begins and Mandela is released from prison and then becomes president. When the boys and the country unite to cheer on their mixed-race soccer team, Bafana Bafana (meaning “The Boys, The Boys”), and celebrate their victory over Tunisia in the African Cup of Nations, Watson creates a jubilant scene awash in yellow. The wordless final page hints at a brighter future for a South Africa positively influenced by the people’s passion for sports.
Bildner and Watson offer young readers an informative snapshot of a divided land through the lens of boys who just want to play."
"This gentle yet penetrating story underscores the power of sports to unite, while providing an overview of the seismic changes the 1990s brought to South Africa. Bildner (The Unforgettable Season) uses soccer as a metaphor for apartheid; the narrator is a black boy who kicks around an "egg-shaped" ball with his sister and friends in his ramshackle Johannesburg township. During trips to a wealthier neighborhood, the boy sees a white boy playing soccer with his friends in a lush park; though he is eager to join the game, the other players ignore him. Bildner moves quickly through recent South African history, touching on Nelson Mandela's release from prison, the end of apartheid, Mandela's election as president, and the country's 1996 victory in the African Cup of Nations, which brings the two boys together. Watson (Hope for Haiti) sets the scenes with gestural pencil drawings, while painting the main characters and the soccer action in rich, vivid acrylics. Concise historical notes follow the story, giving readers helpful context. Ages 6–8."