The Contender by Robert Lipsyte



The Contender by Robert Lipsyte, ISBN: 9780064470391

Plot Summary: James and Alfred were always best buds. James was there when Alfred’s parents died and he had to move in with his Aunt Pearl. James was there when Alfred dropped out of school, and Alfred was there when James dropped out a couple months later. But now James is hanging out with a new, dangerous crowd, and Alfred gets himself into trouble when he refuses to help them steal from his employers. Alfred’s feeling pretty low. He’s lost his best friend, can’t stand up to the bullies, and keeps getting reminded how he isn’t helping the fight for civil rights. Then he stumbles upon a boxing gym. Could this be the thing that will make him special, that will make him a contender?

Critical Evaluation: I was initially worried that this book would be too dated for a teen to be interested in today. However, at least from my perspective, I think this book has enough universal themes for teens to still be drawn to it. Alfred lives in the 60s, so speech is different, and racial tensions are certainly different. Instead of feeling obsolete, this served as a reminder of what life was like. I could see fans of historical fiction—especially of the sports variety—enjoying this book.

The character development is the strongest component of this book. Alfred grows quite a bit through the story, from one who doesn’t consider his future much, one who remains devoted to his work and his best friend without much critical evaluation of his life, to someone with plans and the drive to change his life and the lives of those around him. I also thought that characters were well developed and layered. Even Alfred’s bullies are seen softening to him as he gets more serious about boxing. And other boxers are shown caring about their opponents, while still merciless within the ring.

The setting is also well realized. I felt like I was walking around the neighborhood with Alfred, from the street he lives on to the grocery store he works in, from the park he runs in and has a hideout with James in, to the gym on the third floor of a familiar street. The sounds of the neighborhood are frequently incorporated, as is a sense of who lives in each. Alfred’s seems mostly African American, though he works in a Jewish grocery store not far away. His friend Spoon represents a more middle class African American and lives in an integrated neighborhood, alluding to the changing winds for Civil Rights.

To borrow from our class discussions, I did feel that the overarching moral of the story was a bit too obvious. Alfred’s transformation is in some ways juxtaposed with his friend Jame’s decline into drug addiction.  The ending symbolizes Alfred pulling himself and James out of their respective ruts, thanks to the determination and hard work he’s learned through his time as a boxer. We don’t know exactly what will happen to either, but Alfred’s grand dreams for the both of them feel too sudden and forced. I felt like he went from ignoring the Civil Rights movement in his neighborhood one day, to taking up the cause wholeheartedly the next. However, I overall felt that the story was well written, enjoyable, and a worthy read.

Reader’s Annotation: Love the excitement of a match, the roar of the crowd, the pounding of your heart as you step up to face your opponent? Tell that to Alfred, the newest contender on the New York boxing scene.

Information about the author: Robert Lipsyte is both an author of novels and a sports journalist. His career as a journalist began in 1957 when he answered an ad for an editorial assistant. Two years later, he was sent to cover a fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay, and was there when Clay surprised everyone and beat Liston. This gave him the idea for “The Contender” and also cemented his place as a sports writer. He continued to write novels, as well as movies.

In 2001, he won the Margaret Edwards Award for his lifetime contribution to young adult literature. He continues to write. He currently lives in New York, and says of his achievements, “the best new prizes have been named Alfred Lipsyte, Sylvia Lipsyte, and Daniel Nachumi, my three grandchildren.”

Genre: Sports, Realistic Fiction

Curriculum ties, if any: Robert Lypsite is representative of earlier YA fiction, which could make it a good story to read for a class such as this one, or for a high school literature class.

Booktalking Ideas: I would definitely highlight the sports elements of this book. There are descriptions of boxing matches, as well as the strenuous training involved; some of the glory, but also how being a professional athlete can change your life. This doesn’t perfectly represent today’s professional athletes, but I would guess that even if the money can’t compare, the feelings do.

Reading Level/Interest Age: The main character is 17. This is however written at a lower reading level, but I think that the age of the protagonist, coupled with the interesting subject matter makes this a good choice for a struggling older reader as well. I was not able to find specific age suggestions in reviews for this title, perhaps because it was written before that was put into practice.

Challenge Issues:

  • violence
  • drug use

Defense strategy:

  1. First, I would want to be familiar with book. As I’ve read this book, I’d be aware of potential issues that could be challenged. In the case of a book I had not read, I would want to have access to reviews.
  2. Then I would put together a rationale for why this book is included in the collection. This rationale would include:
    • Bibliographic Citation of the book.
    • A description of who the book is best suited for.
    • A summary of the book and applicable other information, such as biographical information about the author.
    • My justification for including the book. This would include how it fits in with the selection policy and library mission statement, and include its educational significance if applicable or the impact it could have on readers.
    • Copy of selection policy and library mission statement at my library.
    • ALA Library Bill of Rights
    • Good and bad reviews of the book
    • Alternative works a student could read
    • Reconsideration form if patron is not satisfied with rationale
  3. When talking to patron, I would listen to their concerns without getting on the defensive and attempt to sympathize with their concerns. In some cases, all an upset patron needs is to be able to vent and know that someone is listening to them.
  4. If needed, I would send the challenge up the chain of command.

This book certainly has a moral and a hopeful ending, which I would think would ameliorate some of the concerns. It also represents a very real part of our world, where teens drop out of school, do drugs, get in fights. But it also shows that those same teens are capable of making good decisions and getting themselves on the right track.

Why did you include this book?: It is a classic YA book, and discusses the issues befalling an urban black teen in the 60s. It is also centered around a sport, which is a type of book I don’t usually read.


Lipsyte, R.(2013). Biography. Retrieved from


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  1. Pingback: Alphabetical List of Titles | let's talk about that book...

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