Running With Lions by Julian Winters is a super cute romance that celebrates diversity and gay identities. It’s also super sporty which isn’t something I come across a lot in YA, so it was cool reading about a team learning how to be close and work together like a family, but also still working out how they fit together and relate. The team is about acceptance: no matter how you are or who you love. And it was so nice to read about! There’s tension and there’s mistakes and there’s devastation…but it’s ultimately an actual happy book with plenty of cute moments and some great messages.
The story follows Sebastian Hughes as he sets off for soccer camp and discovers he’s been lumped with his once-childhood-best-friend, Emir Shah. Trouble is, they’re not friends anymore. Emir is cold and indifferent and Sebastian doesn’t really know what went wrong between them. All he knows is that this is his last year of highschool to try and make the Lions team great, possibly land the captain position, and also figure out what comes next for him after he graduations. Pressure is building as everyone expects him to be the “good kid”, the one who keeps them all together and in line. No one even knows Sebastian is bi and he has trouble saying out loud to himself. Sebastian is left to try and fit Emir into the team, make him a better soccer player, and also try to patch things between them…except maybe he doesn’t just want to be friends with Emir this time. Maybe Sebastian wants a lot more.
One of the biggest themes in this book is: acceptance and respect. I love how it talks about both, not just wanting people to approve of your relationship with whoever you love, but also respecting you no matter what. It’s pretty cool that the coach of the Lions built the team to be, almost, a refuge for kids who struggled to fit in other places because of their identities. The team also features teens of different nationalities and religions. Emir, the love interest, is English-Pakistani and religious. (He also seems to have a bit of social anxiety.) Everyone comes from different backgrounds, with different hurdles to face, and they definitely don’t always get along — but they try.
There’s plenty of soccer scenes in the book, but it’s balanced with lots of dialogue and the good ol’ setting of a bunch of teens at summer camp. So wow yes do they get up to some mischief. If you’re not particularly sporty, you’d still enjoy this for the characters!
Sebastian was a bit of a “good guy” but he definitely isn’t bland! He’s struggling so much with wondering what the future holds and also internalised fear that coming out will change what people think of him. His relationship with Emir moves pretty quickly, but since they were childhood friends, you definitely feel the connection fast. I also loved that it explored Emir’s backstory too. How he’s working hard at soccer to please his dad but he isn’t sure this is him. The book has a lot to say on following your heart.
Running With Lions is a really fun, summery read with a powerful message and plenty of banter!