Monday, March 28, 2011

Celebrating Basketball History, Too

March 28 - Today's post provided by Sue Macy

Celebrating Basketball History, Too
by Sue Macy

In a rare quirk of circumstance, I have two new books out this month, both about women and sports. My YA book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), published by National Geographic, has been mentioned on this site before, and while I’m exceedingly proud of it, I want to focus on the other one today, Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Map, published by Holiday House. It’s especially timely because not only is this Women’s History Month; it’s also March Madness, the time of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s annual basketball championships, which will culminate in this weekend’s Final Four.

Long before the NCAA’s marketing geniuses branded March the month of Madness, two teams of eager young athletes met at the Page Street Armory in San Francisco to play the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game. It was April 4, 1896, and just four years before, physical education instructor Senda Berenson of Smith College had adapted the rules of James Naismith’s new sport to make it acceptable (read: less rough-and-tumble) for women. Though Berenson’s students at Smith embraced the game and classes played against each other, all competition was kept within the school. It was left to those upstarts on the West Coast to throw down the gauntlet for interscholastic competition.

I first learned about the game when I was researching Winning Ways, my social history of American women in sports, and I wrote an article about it for the New York Times on its 100th anniversary. But I’ve always wanted to write about it for kids. The coverage of the contest in San Francisco’s newspapers—all written by women, because men weren’t allowed in the arena—was so descriptive that it was easy to “see” the action and follow the progress of the game. The San Francisco Chronicle, Call, and Examiner even included pen-and-ink drawings of the major plays and players. Everything seemed to point to a picture book about the match-up; everything, except the fact that I’d never written a picture book before.

I researched Basketball Belles as I do every book I write, starting by gathering newspaper coverage of the event and seeking out academic and popular books and articles about it. I also flew out to the Bay area to look for information and photographs in the archives of the two schools involved in the game, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. While at Stanford, I got to watch a practice and a game of the current team and interview their coach, Tara VanDerveer, who’s taken the Cardinal to the Final Four the past three years. At Cal, I met the athletic director, Sandy Barbour, as well as basketball coach, Joanne Boyle. While those meetings weren’t really necessary for writing the book, they made the experience a lot more fun.

Relating the story of the game in 700 words seemed much harder than it would have been in 20,000 words. Fortunately, illustrator Matt Collins filled in lots of the details with his dynamic and very authentic drawings. (Matt went to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, to do his research.) But it was up to me to write the narrative and around the sixth or seventh draft, the final form of the book started to take shape. My editors and I decided we needed to look at the game through the eyes of one of the players and I chose Stanford guard Agnes Morley because she had gone on to become a writer. Though Morley never wrote about the game itself, I got a good sense of her voice and her character from her award-winning memoir,  No Life for a Lady. A singular woman who grew up on an isolated ranch in New Mexico, she was the book’s missing link, someone for readers to get to know and root for. Coincidentally, author Darlis A. Miler published an adult biography of Morley soon after my book went to press. Open Range: The Life of Agnes Morley Cleaveland is a great read about a genuine western character.

Writing Basketball Belles was both liberating and humbling. How wonderful it was to see this game that I had known about for so long come to life through the stunning illustrations. But how challenging it was to let brevity reign, to waste no words in the telling of this tale. It was a learning experience, to be sure, one that I ultimately enjoyed. In fact, I’ve just started the research for my next picture book. Stay tuned.

Editor's Note:
Sue Macy blogs on her official website, Sue, and also contributes monthly to I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) We can't wait to see what her next picture book will be!


  1. Basketball Belles is a great addition to children's literature. As your title indicates, we need to celebrate basketball's history, too. Particularly because it is a sport where women have the opportunity to excel on a professional basis. As a baseball fan, I know there are a large number of nonfiction picture books regarding baseball, but far fewer for basketball.

    I'm also glad that you pointed out the skill needed to write for children. It's truly an art form to accurately convey facts, meaning, and mood to a young reader. You've definitely filled a need with this book. Thanks.

  2. I'm really looking forward to reading this one! I love the cover picture--it's just bouncing off the page!

  3. Thanks for your comments. I just wanted to update the article by reporting that tonight the Stanford women made it to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year. The victorious spirits of Agnes Morley and her teammates live on.

  4. Another Cardinals fan here! Looking forward to reading your book, Sue.

  5. Posting a bit late, but it's so fine to read about this one, any month of any year.

    Summertime makes me think of baseball. And this one sounds like a home run.