Entering a stadium among a sea of equally boisterous and kitted-out fans, kicking around a weather-worn ball in the park, impressing friends with yet another newly mastered trick—these little nuances of what has come to be widely known as The Beautiful Game feel like almost a lifetime ago. However, in the midst of all our foot- ball wistfulness—and, very conveniently, just before the Men’s and Women’s UEFA European Championships— London–based Scot Priscilla Mante is breathing new life onto the pitch with her début novel, The Dream Team: Jaz Santos vs The World.
Following the escapades of budding footballer Jasmina Santos–Campbell, Jaz Santos vs The World tells the story of one girl who is determined to create her own girls’ football team. It is made up of a group of rather unlikely friends, and has two goals in mind: to prove that girls can, and should, be taken seriously in football, but also, to win Jasmina’s mum back—she recently left the family home. A refreshing and heartwarming read, it’s a story that Mante has been itching to share for a while.
“When I was about 10, I used to read so many books and I promised myself I would give kids that same joy I had,” shares the Glasgow native over an early morning Zoom call. “Football was something I loved, and it’s all about writing what you know and are passionate about.” Having adored the sport since she was young, Mante decided that football would be an excellent vehicle for sensitively exploring trickier topics, specifically fractured family dynamics. Her début also doubles as a love-letter to her younger self, and others like her, who never came across these kinds of books despite hunting them out. “I used to read The Baby–Sitters Club and various things, but I don’t remember reading any books that were football books,” she shares. “I didn’t even read Bend It Like Beckham until last year—and I’d already written the book by then!”
Taking inspiration from children she met while liaising with care services across seven years, Mante saw how captivated they were by books by the likes of Jacqueline Wilson. “I started to read some of them and I decided that was the kind of book I wanted to write. Even though I knew I wanted to write for children, I didn’t know the type of book I wanted to write.” Toying with genres like fantasy, the Ghanaian writer decided that she wanted to pen a novel that was rooted in something relatable, a narrative that could speak to messy and complicated experiences. “I decided to write a book that would teach children some- thing in a very real and realistic way,” she adds. “I want to teach children that they’re more than their circumstances or situations. I want to show them that they don’t have to be blamed for what they have been put through.”
We see the way these real-life circumstances play out in Jaz’s life, almost from the very start of the novel. We watch through her eyes as the relationship between her parents shows cracks and the outward ripples it causes—an aspect that was incredibly crucial for Mante. “Writing something like this about somebody whose parents have split up is not so unique; it’s quite a common thing. It was the feel- ing of something going on in their life that is somewhat beyond them—that’s what I wanted to write. I wanted to speak to the children who may be experiencing just that.”
Alongside navigating difficult and often painful home situations, Mante has also taken the opportunity to shine a light on the experiences faced by bilingual children, something she knows all too well, with a second language of Twi. With Portuguese language and cultural signifiers woven throughout the novel, Jaz Santos vs The World is an ode to straddling multiple worlds. “Like Jaz, I’m semi–bilingual and can understand the language but can’t speak it properly, and I wanted to get that across.” Rather than offer us a completely fluent protagonist, readers are introduced to the bumpy terrain children face when switching between two languages or more. “I guess people maybe don’t realise the amount of skill bilingual children [have],” muses Mante. “I wanted to show that kind of cultural deftness that you gain.”
No stranger to tackling tricky facets of life head-on, it’s no wonder that Mante’s work also acts as a guide for young girls who love football but simply don’t see themselves in the game. “Football should be an inclusive sport that everyone can take part in,” she explains. “Girls’ football and women’s football don’t get the attention they should do and it was really important for me, through Jas, to challenge the status quo.” Not only does Jaz’s team of seven, the Bramrock Stars, see them challenge male peers and teachers alike, but the début author also decided to purposefully capture the fact that Jaz’s teammates weren’t as skilled as her. “I want people to know that even if they’re not brilliant players, sport is still something that should be fun—and football, in particular, is something that people can play regardless of skill level.”
There’s an intentionality to this writer’s storytelling that will, no doubt, be even further sharpened in the sequel, which is already in the works. Through her work, Mante is making it her mission to see and communicate with children who are so often missing from many titles; she offers them a chance to witness themselves between the pages of a book, possibly for the first time. “I guess I want them to know that they should believe in their dreams, that they are more than anything they’re currently facing, and that they have got gifts and talents they are yet to explore.”
The Dream Team: Jaz Santos vs The World will be published by Puffin on 27th May (paperback, £5.99)
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