Friday, January 13, 2012

Basketball Belles

Maybe now that the Cybils shortlist has been announced, you might think that I'd be done talking about Non-fiction Picture Books.  But you'd be wrong!  There are still lots of great books to talk about from our original list of books.  And many of them were books I hadn't heard about before this process, so I want to make sure you know about them too.
Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops on the Map is a title that was nominated for a Cybil award.  Its author, Sue Macy, is perfectly suited to write this book.  Her other books are primarily nonfiction, and Macy examines with a keen eye topics in women's history and also sports.  So a book about the first intercollegiate basketball game is right up her alley.

The story in this picture book focuses on Agnes Morley.  It's told in a first-person style, so you see the game and everything leading up to it through Morley's eyes.  Agnes has grown up in New Mexico on a ranch, so she is used to tough, strenuous, dirty work.  But Agnes tells readers that her mother sent her to Stanford, hoping that college would "make me a lady".  Apparently Standford hasn't done exactly what Mrs. Morley had in mind.  From the very start of this story, Agnes is in motion.  Even before the game begins, she is shown running through the streets of San Francisco.  Her energy and enthusiasm along with her strength (developed at the ranch) make her a formidable guard on Stanford's first women's basketball team. 

Macy seamlessly works in facts about the differences between women's and men's basketball.  For instance, the first woman to adapt basketball into a game for women divided the court into three sections.  Each woman player is assigned to a section, where they stay for the whole game.  Macy describes the basketball as a "big, stuffed, leather ball" - a far cry from the ball we all know today.  But to me one of the most interesting differences between the game played in these pages and today's games was the score.  Stanford wins the game (a hard-fought battle) by a score of 2-1.  No, I didn't mistype that.  And it's pretty incredible that Macy can describe this game, and keep readers' interest, even without many baskets.
Stanford and Berkeley are playing the first intercollegiate women's basketball game, and it's not without controversy.  Berkeley's team does not want any men to be allowed to watch this historic game because they "don't feel it's proper for women to perspire in front of men".  Yet five hundred women show up to cheer their teams on at this game.  Morley retells what happens when a shot knocks the basket off-kilter and janitors have to be called: "Out they come, the only men in the building.  The assistant stares at us so intently, he almost knocks the janitor off his ladder!"  This effectively emphasizes how unusual this game and these teams were.  This short episode within the larger game allows Macy to comment on the situation  without adding historical bulk to the action of the game.

But there is one thing I found missing in this story.  The date of the game is nowhere to be found within the text of the story.  Maybe this choice was made purposefully - after all, the story is told through Morley's voice, and it might have been difficult to work the date into the retelling.  And the period illustrations definitely give the reader some historical context.  But I kept wondering about the date, in multiple readings, and would refer back to the date in the back of the book.  I will tell you that Macy does a fabulous job with the back matter for this story.  There is an extensive author's note with additional information about the game and Agnes Morley's life.  Macy has also included a timeline of women's basketball, a resource list with a bibliography and places to visit and a Stanford team photo.  I feel strongly about back matter.  Not only does it add to the authenticity of the story being told, but it can act as a springboard for readers' further investigation.

I would be remiss if I didn't spend some time discussing Collins' illustrations.  They match perfectly with Macy's text.  The text is full of action words - teammates "dive on top of me", a Berkeley player "throws a stinging pass".  This sense of movement is echoed in Collins' illustrations.  In almost every picture, someone is moving, and Collins does an amazing job translating that movement onto static paper.  They are running down the floor, girls are struggling for the ball and cheering at the win.  Collins really demonstrates the passion that is present in women's basketball from the very first game.

One of the techniques that is most noticeable in this book is his use of shifting perspectives.  The cover is a close-up of the basketball as Morley frantically dives for it.  There is a full-page illustration of women's feet pounding down the court with the cheering crowds glimpsed through players' legs.  The constantly shifting perspectives give the feeling of a modern-day televised basketball game, with multiple cameras following the action.  It helps add to the quick pacing of this book.  Readers can truly see the action in these double-spread paintings.  Some of the paintings have white backgrounds (much like the cover illustration) which focuses attention on the small details of the game.

The only negative about the illustrations (andI'm willing to contend that this may be more of a book design problem) is that on some pages the text seems to be haloed to make the black text stand out against darker shades in the illustrations.  What readers see is a little bit of light yellow or white around the words on those particular pages (like the one with Agnes Morley runnning past a streetcar on her way to the game).  This was probably done to enhance the text's visibility on these pages, but it instead made the text seem blurry to me, and gave it a slightly dizzying effect.

All in all, though, Agnes Morley is a compelling figure to follow through this game.  I think basketball fans would really enjoy this story particularly.  They might compare and contrast the game depicted here with the game they play today.  Either way, they'll come up a winner.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops on the Map.  Sue Macy; illustrated by Matt Collins.  Holiday House, 2011.

My copy given by the publisher for review for the Cybils panel.

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