1. Why did you decide to write a series about women in multiple sports across decades?
Although there was pretty much nothing written about women’s sports history when I was growing up, once I started researching I found out there was a huge story to tell. I’ve written a number of books on specific athletes and leagues, but I was interested in looking at women’s history through the lens of sports: how did physical fitness and athletic competition impact women’s lives at different times? I started with the bicycle in the 1890s because that was the first time women took part in a fitness activity in large numbers. I moved on to the automobile from 1900 through World War I because there was so much controversy about women driving and racing cars at the time. And I knew that the 1920s marked a crucial decade in the history of women in sports, one where women’s achievements led to a powerful backlash and questions about the very definition of femininity.
2a. Which female athletes inspire you? Is there a time period you most admire?
I am most inspired by female athletes who excel on the field but also use their position as role models to try and improve things for other women. People like Megan Rapinoe and the members of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team, Serena and Venus Williams, and the U.S. gymnasts who testified against Dr. Larry Nassar. Their fights for pay equity and against abuse are helping to improve conditions for women athletes in the U.S. and around the world.
2b. Is there a time period you most admire?
There are two decades in the 20th century when women took their participation in sports to the next level, the 1920s and the 1990s. I got to explore the 1920s in depth in Breaking Through. It was the first time women athletes became international sports stars and had their achievements reported on the sports pages. There were so many outstanding athletes, but, as I discuss in the book, there were also a lot of critics who felt it was inappropriate for women to passionately compete in sports. Because of these critics women were discouraged from competing for much of the 20th century, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that women broke out bigtime. At the 1996 Summer Olympics, American women’s teams won gold in basketball, softball, soccer, and team gymnastics. Soon after, two professional women’s basketball leagues started, as did pro leagues in other sports. The 1990s sowed the seeds for the exciting women’s sports landscape that we have today.
3. How did you get into sports?
I was an athletic kid in an athletic family. My dad always played softball with all the neighborhood kids when I was growing up, and at sleepover camp I played softball and volleyball and swam. Our family also watched sports a lot—baseball, tennis, football, the Olympics. When the Olympics were on, I was amazed that there were suddenly talented female athletes on my TV screen. They became my heroes and role models.
4. How did you get into writing?
When I was in elementary school—4th grade, I think—I wrote a short story about a bird that perched on the window of an old lady’s apartment and visited with her. My teacher loved the story and her praise made me feel so empowered. From that moment on, I knew that writing was my superpower. In junior high I started focusing on journalism, researching and reporting on stories related to my school. I eventually was editor in chief of my junior high and high school newspapers and my destiny as a nonfiction author was pretty much set.
5. What advice do you have for someone interested in sports writing?
Read the sports pages. I learned so much reading reports of baseball games, especially the language and the rhythm of sports reporting. The language of sports is full of verbs. People smash hits, tackle opponents, stride across the field. The rhythm changes depending on the sport. It could be slow and deliberate, as in golf, or fast and frantic, as in basketball. You should take notice when you read sports articles. And that brings me to the second bit of advice: Write! If you watch a baseball or basketball game, try writing your own article reporting on what happened. It’s not easy—you have to think of the game as a whole and decide what the defining moments were, while still reporting on the flow of the action—but it will help you get comfortable with the language and pace.
6. Girls drop out of sports earlier and more often than boys do. What are some ways you think we could keep more girls involved in sports?
I think girls need female sports role models, and fortunately, there are increasing numbers of them. The more coverage women’s sports gets, the easier it will be for girls to see athletes who look like them competing on elite levels. And if they see them, they can imagine being them. It’s also important that school guidance counselors share information with girls about scholarship opportunities for female athletes. The possibility of winning a scholarship and competing in college is one more incentive to stick with a sport.
7. What other books do you recommend on women/girls and sports?
Kathleen Krull’s picture book about Wilma Rudolph, Wilma Unlimited (illustrated by David Diaz), is one that I look at often. I think it’s the perfect picture book sports biography. Karen Blumenthal’s nonfiction book about Title IX, Let Me Play, is important because all female athletes should be familiar with the law that opened up school sports to women. I would also recommend a book I edited called Girls Got Game, which is an anthology of short stories and poems by wonderful female writers centered on girls who play sports. It’s out of print, though, so check your libraries for it.