The basic premise is fantastic. Every year animals great and small from across the world set aside their natural differences to compete in a dramatic game of football dubbed the Beast Bowl. To the animals that compete---everything from powerful lions down to hopping kangaroos---playing in the Beast Bowl means respect throughout the animal kingdom. When the coach for the East Team retires, the team’s quarterback---an idealistic chimpanzee named Sammy the Slinging Simian----takes up the challenge to keep the team going. Along with his best friend Carl the Elephant, Sammy travels from Africa to the United States to recruit an out of work college football coach to run their failing team. There’s only one problem: speaking to a human will break one of their most sacred laws of the animal kingdom and may mean banishment for the two travelers. For Sammy and the East Team to succeed animals and man will have to learn to trust and respect each other for the first time in hundreds of years.
The only real weakness of the novel is John, the human coach recruited by Sammy and Carl. Early on, he is framed by his employer to cover up the unethical recruiting practices of the college. We are told by a few he’s one of the best coaches in the world but we never really get to see why until the end. I also had a hard time believing that he would leave his wife and daughter at home while he trotted off to Africa to coach a football team of animals. It could be argued that Beast Bowl is not John’s story but Sammy’s and we don’t need that much depth in John to tell the real tale. But with a little tweaking this could have really been both Sammy’s and John’s story and would have been made all the more powerful for it.
Fortunately, Sammy’s story is really compelling. His motivations to save his team are clear and quite well done and the way he sneaks across continents is quite clever (I won’t give it away, because it’s one of the true pleasures of the novel). The sport aspect is also handled very well; from the quick thinking tactics of a quarterback to the severe body blows of a lineman Chaikin writes with enough knowledge to satisfy the pickiest of sports fans and yet uses enough humor and dramatic flair to appeal to readers who don’t know the difference between a safety and a field goal. It has great appeal to teens. Nearly every time I was reading it in a public place some teenager, both boys and girls, came up to me and asked me if it was good and what it was about. Most seemed really excited by the idea of a sports story with talking animals.
But Chaikin delivers more than a sports story. The tale shifts into a court trial of sorts, and its s trial that causes the animal world to reconsider how they interact with the human world. Well plotted and delivered through memorable characters, Beast Bowl comes together as a clever and thoughtful parable on mankind’s responsibilities to both the natural world and each other.