I didn’t ever expect to be this excited about a middle-grade book about a wrestling school, but it’s coming out tomorrow and here I am! I’ve been waiting on this to come out for months so I could tell people about it!
So it’s like this: MJ is a girl in middle school who’s being bullied in her gymnastics class and dealing with her complicated feelings about her dad, who has left her and her mom. She still loves him, but her pain and betrayal at his departure is complicating her emotions. One thing associated with him that’s still fun for her is watching professional wrestling, a shared hobby of the two of them. She’s well aware the results are predetermined, but the athleticism, showmanship, and excitement of it are all very real.
She meets an elderly next door neighbor and it turns out he used to be a respected name in the wrestling business and he still runs a training gym that occasionally puts on shows. After some cajoling aimed at her mother, she drops gymnastics to get away from the toxicity of her peers, and starts taking classes. She finds that the gym’s fellow students and staff are welcoming and supportive but the first thing she has to do is learn to take a bump: how to land and take an impact safely. There’s some tricks to it. It takes practice and cooperation to not actually break anything in some of the moves, and strength to do it reliably, and it’s the fundamental skill the rest of professional wrestling is built on.
No matter what you do, taking a bump hurts a bit. The process there teaches MJ: Life hurts, no matter what you do, but you can pick how it hurts, be ready for it, and it’ll hurt a lot less with friends to help.
The author, Matt Wallace, is a former wrestler himself and the discussions of the mechanics and backstage life are informed by his lived experience. Anyone who’s been to middle school will identify with the petty games of social dominance bullies play that MJ has to live with, and further along MJ learns about how even doing something well-meaning and the right move can cause jealousy and hurt feelings that have to be addressed and mended.
I didn’t expect to read this book and have the memories of middle school cliques wake up like they did. Matt Wallace very accurately nails the pains of that age down on page, and I think he has some lessons here that’ll help kids get ready for life. I know some of this would have helped me, back in the day.