Football became a favourite pastime and, before long, they were creating all-female sides and playing public matches to sell-out crowds, overshadowing the men's football. Despite drawing crowds of 50,000, women's football was outlawed by the Football Association in 1921, who deemed it 'unsuitable for females'. This is the incredible story of these amazing women.
Reviewed by Kelly Ashley
Our Beautiful Game is the latest middle-grade, historical fiction title by Lou Kuenzler with cover illustrations by Momoko Abe, a London-based author-illustrator from Japan. Our Beautiful Game is set in the north of England (Lancashire) during the First World War and tells the tale of 12-year old Polly Nabb, a young girl with a driving passion for football. When Polly’s older brother Joe is sent off to war, things quickly change for the Nabb family. Polly ends up working in a munitions factory to support her family in the absence of her brother. This mundane job soon turns joyful as Polly meets other local women who share her passion for sport and competition.
Throughout the story, the reader is offered a glimpse into what life may have been like on the home front during World War 1, especially for women. There is, however, a good amount of background knowledge relating to the historical, social and military context of events as they unfold that the reader will need in order to fully access the text. For instance, when Polly begins her work at the munitions factory, some key terms could be explored to support the reader to better understand this role:
- munitions – weaponry, supplies and equipment produced for the armed forces;
- ‘munitionettes’ – British women employed in munitions factories during the First World War;
- lathe – a machine used for gun boring and shell-shaping;
- ‘Canary Girls’ – women who worked in munitions factories in World War 1 manufacturing TNT (the repeated exposure to the chemicals turned their skin orange-yellow in colour).
In addition to the potential for developing and extending knowledge relating to this period of military history, it would also be a fantastic novel to use as a catalyst for exploring the changing roles of women and gender stereotypes. What were people’s perceptions of gender roles in this time and how do different characters in the novel display these differing views? What clues does the author provide us about gender roles and expectations within Polly’s family unit? What is expected of Polly and her mum as opposed to her brothers and her father?
A third avenue for exploration using this novel could be women in sport. Although football is central to the story, as someone who does not follow the sport of football, I still found the descriptions of events accessible. However, readers with additional football knowledge may connect with the book on a different level, drawing on personal experiences. In the epilogue, Kuenzler gives the reader a window into the real-life inspiration for Polly’s character – Lily Parr a renowned player for The Dick Kerr Ladies Football Club in Lancashire. (For more information about Parr’s career and contributions to the sport, visit Lily Parr Hall of Fame Profile (nationalfootballmuseum.com). By starting with an exploration into the career of Lily Parr, learners could extend this research into women’s contributions to sport over time – Jessica Ennis-Hill (track and field), Fatima Whitbread (javelin thrower), Paula Radcliffe (long-distance runner) and many more.
Following the First World War in 1921, women’s football was banned by the FA. This ban surprisingly stayed in place for a further 50 years. This would be an interesting point for discussion and debate – Why do you think that football for women was banned at this time as soldiers were returning from their service in the war? Why do you think this ban remained in place for such a long period of time? Do you agree – why or why not?
Polly’s words on the final page of novel linger with the reader – ‘Football is ours now too. It belongs to us. Our beautiful game. You can never take it away.’ A fitting reminder of the centenary of the year when football was banned for women, this multifaceted novel can be used flexibly in the upper KS2 classroom to spark discussion and debate. Our Beautiful Game is a beautiful choice for the upper primary reader.