‘The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope and Apartheid’ by Phil Bildner

soccer fence

Rating: 5 stars

“The Soccer Fence” is a picture book by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson, It’s about a boy in South Africa who wants to play soccer on a real soccer field — but apartheid makes doing that difficult.

When Hector practices soccer, it is barefoot and with an egg-shaped ball in their ghetto. When he travels to the white part of town, from outside a gated field, he is able to watch white boys play with a real soccer ball on a real, grass-covered field. When he calls to them, they don’t even acknowledge his existence. In the beginning of the book, Hector looks like he is about four years old.

Years later, when Mandela is freed from prison and apartheid crumbles, Hector is again at the gated field, but the boys still don’t acknowledge him. When the ball goes over the fence, Hector kicks it back to one of the boys — “the blond boy” — he, too, turns away without even a “thank you.”

But both boys are avid soccer fans, and when the team they root for makes it to the finals, they both go to the game. Time has passed, and they now look like they are in their early teens. They see each other at the stadium, and for the first time, the white boy responds to Hector. When their team wins, both Hector and the other boy lead the lines of fans around the stadium.

The next time Hector sees the boy on the soccer field, the white boy opens the gate and invites Hector to play. Hector tells him that when he plays, he likes to “be” Shoes Moshoeu, a black player on the national team. The other boy says his name is Chris, but he likes to “be” Mark Fish, a white player on the same team.

And they play soccer.

Included briefly in the story is a bit about Mandela and how the blacks in South Africa finally got their freedom. The end pages are filled with nonfiction information about the history of South Africa and an “Apartheid Timeline.” It’s fascinating (and repugnant) but for students who are studying race relations in the USA, this section will be of great interest — and very important.

While the story line is rather improbable, that aspect can also be used to generate discussion in classes studying discrimination: “Do you think prejudice is that easily overcome?”

Jesse Joshua Watson creates illustrations in bright colors that help the reader differentiate between the dusty shantytown where Hector lives (rich ochers) and the rich, affluent suburb where his mother works and he watches the white boys play soccer (bright greens). Other scenes are also painted in bright colors — but most telling is the final page, wherein the two boys run to play soccer together. It’s done in green with an ocher sky. The two boys, much older than they are in the beginning of the book, are finally playing together, and the colors of each are also together sharing a page.

This book is not a book for young readers, but rather for children from third grade and up. The illustrations are both bright and powerful, and teachers will appreciate the nonfiction information provided.

“The Soccer Fence” would be a great companion book to “Ruth and the Green Book” by Calvin Alexander Ramsey.