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“Darkness goes away, but the sun shows up and you start over again. So let high school happen, and eventually you light up the rest of your life. Burn as bright as you want,” Lily Hughes. —Running with Lions
Running with Lions
by Julian Winters
Diverse Characters, LGBTQ
Sebastian Hughes is excited to start his senior high school soccer season. He’s the starting goalkeeper on his soccer team. His best friends, Mason and Willie, are also on the team. The three friends go to summer training camp where Coach Patrick welcomes everybody, regardless of sexual orientation.
Everything would be great, except Sebastian’s estranged childhood friend, Emir Shah, shows up at camp. Emir’s prickly personality makes team cohesiveness difficult. Sebastian realizes the team’s success may end up in the hands of the one guy who hates him. For the team’s sake, Sebastian reaches out to Emir. When Sebastian finally breaks through the initial barrier, he discovers that he and Emir’s friendship might evolve into something much more romantic.
Running with Lions has diverse characters, and the book tackles ideas about teamwork, friendship, and sexuality. For instance, Sebastian is bisexual and Emir is gay. Emir is also British Pakistani and sometimes talks about his experiences being Muslim. Many of the other characters have equally diverse backstories, but their stories aren’t fully fleshed out. Despite their differences, Sebastian’s teammates have a strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty, especially in the face of adversity from outside forces.
Despite the diverse characters, the plot is somewhat flat. The story primarily focuses on Sebastian and Emir’s budding relationship, and sometimes their relationship takes the focus off of soccer. Although the plot builds up to the first big soccer game after camp, it’s a slow climb to reach that point. The story and dialogue sometimes come off as choppy, cheesy, cliché, and occasionally confusing.
For soccer players, Running with Lions may be difficult to read because the soccer terminology is incorrect. For instance, Sebastian was “head-butting the ball to Zach,” when it should be “heading.” In addition, the Coach yells for “plays” to be run during a game when scripted plays don’t happen in soccer. These details make the action and the soccer camp setting unrealistic.
Although Running with Lions tackles important ideas about sexuality and friendship, soccer fans will find the incorrect soccer facts, the slow plot, and occasionally clichéd writing frustrating. Despite the diverse cast, Running with Lions may be one book readers leave on the library shelf. If you’re looking for a sports book with a diverse cast, look to Jason Reynolds’ Defenders Track Team series instead.
- Sebastian’s mom helps him pack for soccer camp. When checking his items, she says, “And you’re at that age where if you need condoms…”
- When his mom mentions condoms, Sebastian is embarrassed and thinks, “It’s as bad as that time she caught [Sebastian] kissing Julie Hammonds in eighth grade.”
- When Sebastian’s mom brings up another girl that Sebastian was seeing, Sebastian doesn’t want to tell his parents he’s bisexual.
- Mason, Sebastian’s teammate and friend, pulls up to Sebastian’s house to pick him up for camp. Mason tells Sebastian’s mom, “You’re looking lovely this morning.” It is later explained that Mason flirts with anything that has a heartbeat.
- In the car, Mason, Sebastian, and another teammate, Willie, talk about their plans for after high school. They mention seeing a professional soccer team overseas. Willie says he’d also “Hook up with a few babes over in Barcelona.”
- Mason, Sebastian, and Willie also talk about Mason’s sexual exploits. For instance, Sebastian explains, “Mason flirted and got one guy on the swim team’s number.” Mason also “hooked up with [Miguel, Willie’s friend] at Carl’s last party.”
- Willie says to Mason, “I suck face better than I cook.”
- According to Sebastian, “Rumor was, Coach’s nephew Xander went to one of those blazer-and-tie Catholic schools and got kicked off the baseball team when he came out. Coach decided to change the system: sexuality in sports became a non-factor. Whom you were attracted to off the field didn’t matter.”
- Sebastian also explains that, “No one cared when Willie came out, because he was the best defensive player they had. Mason’s make-out session with Miguel was forgotten the following Monday.”
- Masturbation jokes occur often, especially with Willie. For example, when Willie and Sebastian get to their cabin, they realize that they have some free time before the first practice. Willie is then “making a suggestive motion with his hand. ‘Do you need a little alone time?’”
- Sebastian thinks, “For a gay guy, Willie’s maintained a ridiculous crush on Mason’s ex-girlfriend.” Phrases like this and “the gays approve” sometimes occur.
- During punishment laps at the first training, Coach Patrick yells, “How does one pack of lions suck this bad? What did you all do during the off-season?” Mason replies, “Well, I didn’t suck anyone.” Sexual jokes continue frequently throughout the book.
- When the boys see Emir, a new kid who has never played, they talk about him. One player says that he won’t help Emir since Emir isn’t nice at school. Hunter, another player, responds with, “Have you tried talking to him? Or is that something you’re just sorry at, like picking up women?”
- There is a page-long dinner scene where the players discuss their romantic relationships. One player asks Mason, “So you and Val aren’t hooking up this year?” Another replies jokingly, “He’s saving himself for Coach’s daughter, remember?”
- Coach’s stepdaughter, Grey, is introduced as the person with “a pretty gnarly crush” on Mason. Throughout the book, she openly flirts with Mason.
- Sebastian talks to Grey about her crush, and Sebastian thinks of his own past crushes. He thinks, “He hasn’t crushed on anyone since he was like, eleven? He met Sam at a party, they exchanged numbers and made out at a movie, and that was it.”
- At breakfast, Mason calls Sebastian “a boring virgin.” Sebastian replies, “I’m not a virgin, dickhead.” Mason responds, “Oh, that’s right. Just with guys, correct?”
- Coach Rivera yells at one of the players. Coach says, “Where’s your form?” The player replies, “At your wife’s house.” Coach Rivera responds, “My husband would appreciate it if you picked your crap up one of these days.”
- Sebastian is attracted to Emir. Often, he fantasizes about what romantic/sexual things he and Emir could be doing. These daydreams range in graphic nature. For instance, he finds himself staring at “Emir’s pink, very kissable lips.” At another point, Sebastian has the urge to “toss Emir on the bed for a wrestling match. But that could lead to—no, would lead to—something involving a lot less clothing.”
- During Sebastian and Emir’s training sessions, Sebastian breaks personal space. When trying to teach Emir form, Sebastian “fits his arms around Emir’s lean frame; his hands smooth Emir’s waist.” These moments lead to Emir commenting, “I can’t relax with your junk against my bum, mate” and “I usually don’t mix stupid sports and sex.” Sebastian often makes references to others’ genitalia.
- Two boys are fast asleep in bed, and it is insinuated later that they might be having a fling. Sebastian sees them and describes, “Willie’s face is mashed in Hunter’s neck. Hunter’s fingers are twisted in Willie’s hair; their lower halves are tangled.”
- Sebastian says that Zach didn’t get a girl’s number because she heard that Zach was “a virgin.” Zach declares, “I get plenty of tail.” This conversation continues for a couple of pages.
- When training by themselves, “Sebastian kisses [Emir]. It’s so quick, their mouths just smack.” Sebastian thinks, “…this isn’t a real kiss, where you’re lightheaded afterward or shoving your tongue down a hot guy’s mouth to taste the flavor of his gum.”
- Emir and Sebastian kiss, and the description lasts for a couple of pages. Sebastian describes, “Emir pushes as much as Sebastian pulls. It’s needy. Wet mouths move as if there’s not a second to lose. They’ll never be able to dance around this kiss… He grabs Emir’s hoodie and drags him closer. His thigh fits between them, and Emir uses it like a cat rubbing against a post to scratch an itch.”
- Emir and Sebastian become sexually intimate, and Sebastian narrates, “He doesn’t know if that’s how fooling around with another guy is supposed to be, but it’s a good start.” The description goes on for four pages. Sebastian “drops kisses under Emir’s jaw. Sebastian waits. Emir chokes back a gasp, and then Sebastian’s fingers dig roughly into Emir’s hips, lifting him up in one quick motion. He pushes Emir against the closest wall… Sebastian’s hips meet Emir’s. He worries Emir might not want that, but the soft hitch in Emir’s voice counters those concerns.”
- Mason accidentally reveals that Willie has had a crush on Sebastian for a long time. Mason jokes about how he doesn’t understand why Willie would like Sebastian, and “with his head bent uncomfortably close to Sebastian’s crotch, he says, ‘Are you hiding something amazing in your jockstrap, Hughes?’” Mason then proceeds to say, “I’ve seen it, bro. In the shower. You’ve got Thor’s hammer down there.”
- Sebastian and Emir go skinny dipping. When Emir blushes, Sebastian says, “It’s not like you haven’t seen me naked before.”
- Emir and Sebastian kiss while skinny-dipping in the lake. Sebastian describes, “The kiss isn’t frantic, but it’s feverish. Emir’s hands are on his shoulders. Sebastian’s mouth parts, gasping, teased by Emir’s tongue. It’s thrilling and purposeful, and Sebastian’s heart is erratic.” The description lasts for a page.
- After skinny-dipping, Emir and Sebastian shower together. They kiss. Sebastian “goes for broke, curls a finger under Emir’s chin, and angles his face so he can plant a soft peck on Emir’s mouth. Emir kisses back.”
- Sebastian briefly mentions that one morning, he “let Emir drag him to bed for morning kisses. Sebastian’s fumbling hands highlighted his lack of sexual experience with boys, but Emir didn’t seem to mind at all.”
- When the band The 1975 comes on in Mason’s car, Sebastian explains to Emir that, “Mace would totally suck face with Matt Healy if he could.”
- Sebastian explains that there’s an old drive-in movie place in Oakville, and that “during the week, no one shows up except the slackers, elderly folks, and horny parents searching for somewhere to, well.”
- At the drive-in, “a man older than Sebastian’s dad emerges from a rusty Cadillac. He grins smugly with a hand firmly pressed to his wife’s ass. Sebastian hopes that’s his wife.”
- Sebastian and Emir get intimate at the drive-in, though Sebastian explains that, “All their fooling around has never quite gone there.” Sebastian also narrates, “Emir crawls—climbs into Sebastian’s lap… Emir is balanced on knees that pin Sebastian’s hips. His left hand cradles the back of Sebastian’s head. A soft sigh breaks his lips, inches from Sebastian’s as he lowers his hips.”
- Sebastian asks Emir if he’s ever had sex with a guy, and Emir says, “Yes.”
- Willie says that Mason got playing time years ago because “we had three players out with mono thanks to the lovely Cara Beckman,” who is a cheerleader with “a thing for athletes.”
- Sebastian thinks about his relationship with Sam. He thinks, “Sam made the first move on him. Sam told him she was his girlfriend. Sam said, ‘I love you’ first, words she didn’t mean. Sam broke up with him. First by text and then in person.”
- Emir breaks into Sebastian’s room. Sebastian realizes that Emir is wearing Sebastian’s jersey and that Emir doesn’t care what their teammates think. Sebastian thinks, “that threatens to make Sebastian get on one knee for more than one reason.” The innuendo is not explained further.
- Emir and Sebastian have sex. The buildup is described, but the sex is not. Sebastian narrates, “They kiss. It takes them a moment to find a rhythm between mouths and bodies. Emir’s hand is flat against Sebastian’s chest. Sebastian has fingers in Emir’s hair… [Sebastian] tenses trying to figure out the condom.” This buildup lasts for five pages.
- Willie passes out water in the locker room, and Sebastian takes one. Willie says to Sebastian, “Don’t choke,” when Sebastian cracks the top and guzzles as if he’s been in the desert. He adds a rude gesture that Sebastian supposes is a reference to oral sex.
- Carl badmouths Emir in the locker room. When Sebastian won’t agree with Carl, Carl says, “Sounds like [Emir’s] got a stick up you.”
- Grey challenges Mason to a one-on-one scrimmage, and the first to score gets to pick their prize. Grey says, “If I win, we go on a date.”
- Mason and Willie juggle soccer balls and mock each other. Mason says to him, “I thought you played with balls in your spare time? You suck!” Willie replies, “I get no complaints about the way I handle balls, thank you.”
- Mason tells Willie and Sebastian, “I want to ask [Grey] out.”
- At the hospital, Sebastian discovers that “Hunter and Willie are boyfriends now.”
- Sebastian “kisses Emir” on the soccer field.
- Players sometimes get injured in soccer. For instance, one player runs Emir over during a game, and “Emir’s folded up on the grass.”
- Emir is rude to Sebastian. Sebastian thinks about how he wants “to shout, ‘What the hell?’ or punch Emir or walk away.”
- Sebastian asks Grey if she’s wearing eyeliner at dinner one night. Grey “kicks his shin under the table.”
- Sebastian thinks about how in freshman gym, he “nailed Carl during a friendly baseball game. Carl rolled around the field for half an hour, claiming a dislocated shoulder.”
- Sebastian “imagines his knuckles bloody and Carl laid out on the cement” when Carl harasses Sebastian and Emir.
- After an argument with Carl, Sebastian “turns, rolls his shoulders, and then slams his fist into a locker door.”
- When Grey challenges Mason to a match, Gio says, “Twenty [bucks] says coach murders [Mason] and dumps the body in the lake.” Sebastian “bets [Grey’ll] kick Mason in the junk.”
- Coach makes Sebastian captain. When Mason and Willie find out, they dogpile Sebastian in celebration. “Mason’s elbow jams his ribs. Willie knees him in the thigh.”
- Sebastian tells Willie and Mason that he messed up his chance with Emir. Mason responds with, “Do you want me to rough him up?”
- Hunter gives Sebastian love advice and then ends it with, “And if you ever tell Will about this, I’m gonna use your testicles for keepie-uppies practice.”
- The other team makes homophobic remarks. Zach says, “They’re family, and I’ll whale on any of you prep pussies that messes with ’em, okay?” He turns to Emir and Hunter and says, “I’ve been wanting to deck one of those shitheads since I was a frosh.”
- Zach, Emir, and Hunter playfight in the locker room. “Zach drags Emir into a headlock. Emir playfully fights back though Zach’s size overpowers him. Hunter joins them, jumping on Zach’s back. They all stumble into the locker room with a thud.”
- Two players “are engaged in a furious game of bloody knuckles.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Mason smokes a cigarette on the drive to camp.
- Sebastian describes one spot at camp where “Guys use the picnic area to sneak cigarettes at night.”
- Emir has “a half-burnt cigarette” one night.
- On the weekends, “the seniors usually sneak in cheap beer or rum” to camp. The boys do drink and get drunk during the book. Sebastian carries one of the players, Zach, back to his cabin because Zach is drunk. Zach declares, “I’m not wasted.”
- Zach “grins, arms stuffed with cheap beer. ‘Brews and tunes, dudes.’”
- Sebastian says he saved Mason from getting “locked up two years ago for possession of greenery,” or marijuana.
- Sebastian “was so done with Sam’s shit, he had a healthy hit off Mason’s joint, coughing violently before mellowing out with vodka.”
- Zach has “a chain-smoking father.”
- The guy working at the drive-in concession stand says, “I’ve got half a joint out back that I’m dying to finish. Can you guys order already?”
- Willie tells a story about “that time [Sebastian] drank too many wine coolers and took a dare to do keepie-uppies naked.”
- Once, Sebastian and Mason were “playing drunk Scrabble in a cemetery.”
- Profanity is used often. Profanity includes asshole, hell, hellions, shit, ass, douchebag, dickhead, dick, whore, and bastard.
- Mason flips off Sebastian as he runs past. The middle finger is used occasionally.
- One player swears at his teammates in Italian. For example, he says, “Vete al infierno” which means “go to hell.” He also says, “Que mierda,” but no English translation is given.
- Sebastian “nods like a happy stoner” at Emir’s comment. Variations of this expression are used throughout.
- During an argument, Sebastian says, “Fuck you.” Carl replies, “Yeah, fuck you too, Hughes.”
- The opposing team makes homophobic remarks towards Sebastian’s team, including, “Did you know you play for a team of homos?” and “You pack of faggots.”
- Mason keeps joking about camp being hell. Willie says, “This place is a sanctuary. A no-man’s-land, dude. Sacred.”
- Sebastian mentions that Coach Rivera is “a devout Catholic and often calls on his religion.” Coach Rivera will sometimes say, “Que Dios nos ayude,” or “God help us.”
- Sometimes characters will say things like, “Well, thank baby Jesus” or “Christ.”
- Emir is Muslim and tells Sebastian that he prays “Fajr, the dawn prayer.”
- One player calls Hunter a “Jesus freak,” and Hunter replies, “Let’s hope God blesses me not to humiliate your sorry ass all over the field today. Amen.”
- Emir talks about how one of the freshmen dropped when he had to room with Emir because “Rooming with a Muslim offended his family.” Emir expresses that he’s dealt with discrimination his entire life.
- Emir explains to Sebastian that he was praying “Isha’a…the last of the salats, daily prayers.” Sebastian remembers “the adults in Emir’s family fasting during Ramadan and a small backyard gathering to celebrate a feast day Sebastian can’t remember the name of, but he recalls the beautiful clothing, the music, and Emir’s parents passing out gifts to the children.”
- Sebastian thinks about how he’s “heard of the coaches who refuse to look Coach Patrick in the eye and the parents and faculty who call Coach ‘a supporter of sinners who’ll burn in hell.’”
by Alli Kestler