Before Andrea Montalbano was a novelist, she was a soccer player who excelled in her climb from South Florida club teams to Harvard University. But during her teen years in the 1980s, few stories or books existed to speak to her experiences as a female athlete.
Now, as a writer and a mother of two, the 44-year-old Montalbano is creating stories of her own.
“I think sports is a great way to teach kids where they don’t even know you’re teaching them anything,” she said Wednesday morning at Silverado Middle School, after presenting her youth novels “Breakaway” and “Lily Out of Bounds” to about 110 preteen students in one of five events scheduled this week at Napa County junior high schools.
The former college soccer player and onetime writer-producer for NBC’s “Today” show has discussed her books — installments in the “Soccer Sisters” series about a girl as temperamental off the pitch as she is talented on it — at schools in Napa County and as far away as New York since the Penguin Group published the first volume two years ago.
Montalbano’s visit follows an earlier local stop, a September appearance at Napa Memorial Stadium with Brandi Chastain, who scored the iconic title-winning penalty kick for the U.S. team at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Many of the Silverado students have read “Breakaway” this fall as part of the county Office of Education’s Napa County Reads program, in which some 500 middle schoolers read and study a chosen novel and meet with the writer, according to the office’s superintendent, Barbara Nemko.
During an hour-long question-and-answer session in the school library, Montalbano and her audience retraced the pitfalls and comebacks of the story’s protagonist Lily — and, with the aid of a projector and video clips, the themes of sportsmanship and the lack of it.
In Montalbano’s words and the library’s projector clicker, the highlights and lowlights of the “beautiful game” became links to her novels’ twists and turns.
When the author asked students to remember the win-or-die tactics of Lily’s spike-haired teammate Colby in “Lily Out of Bounds,” she played back a video of players tricking referees by pretending to be elbowed by an opponent, or dropping to the grass with a suspiciously time-killing hamstring “injury” before jogging off unharmed.
Describing another character, Tabitha, and her struggle with self-belief, she unexpectedly put on footage of Chastain’s famous World Cup-winning shot — then added that Chastain, speaking with Montalbano on the NBC set after the tournament, confided her only thought beforehand was “Please don’t let me miss!”
“Breakaway” is the first sports-related novel featured in Napa County Reads, and its athletic setting likely helped boys as well as girls relate to a female central character, Nemko said later Wednesday.
“It was probably a point in its favor” for selection, she said. “The only reservation was the thought that girls would read a story about a boy, but boys might not read a story about a girl. But we thought the sports theme would trump that.”
The force of Montalbano’s stories and its protagonist’s plight seemed to easily cross the gender line to students like Jason Contreras, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Silverado.
“I did feel kind of sorry for Lily, but also good that it would help her learn her lesson,” he said after the author’s event. “It helped the team a lot; it was the right choice for them.”
Whether based on her own experiences or a writer’s inspiration, Montalbano was hopeful her stories of an athlete’s peaks and valleys would help children appreciate the journeys of life and not just the results.
“I don’t know if I won or lost more games overall in soccer,” she said afterward. “But I know I learned a lot more when I lost.”