Reporter: There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?
Serena Williams: I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’
2016 has been a hard year for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and last week was harder than most. This past weekend, the only real joy I saw in my Twitter feed was in regard to one woman: Serena Williams. From that wonderful press conference moment above, to her recitation of Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, to her Wimbledon win, to her doubles win with Venus, to this gorgeously powerful picture, right now, the only trending name I look forward to seeing on Twitter is hers.
So, with Serena in mind, let’s look at a few recent tennis-themed books:
The Lost & Found, by Katrina Leno
Frannie and Louis live across the country from each other, but connect in an online therapy group for teen trauma victims. Now they’ve both headed out on roadtrips—Louis with his twin sister, Willa, and Frannie with her cousin—with plans to meet in Texas, because Louis has been offered a tennis scholarship at UT and Frannie is hoping to meet her biological father for the first time.
There’s a thread of magic that the Kirkus reviewer didn’t find entirely successful, but praised the characterization. I especially want to pick it up to see how Leno handles the intersections of race (Louis and his sister are Indian-American, Frannie is white and her cousin was adopted from Vietnam) and disability (Frannie’s mother struggled with mental illness; Louis is dealing with emotional trauma connected to the accident that resulted in the loss of Willa’s legs).
The Underdogs, by Sara Hammel
A teenage girl is murdered at a tennis club, and twelve-year-olds Evie and Chelsea are determined to find the culprit. Chelsea narrates, and Kirkus notes that, based on her descriptions, the cast is mostly white, though she doesn’t describe herself. Every review I’ve read has mentioned that the book has a Big Twist—based entirely on what the reviews DON’T say, and the fact that there’s only one girl on the cover of the book, my guess is that one of the girls either doesn’t exist or is a ghost. But that is ONLY A GUESS. Now I have to read the book to see if I’m right.
Girl Against the Universe, by Paula Stokes
After people around her—including her father, brother, and uncle—are killed or injured in accidents that leave her unharmed, sixteen-year-old Maguire is dealing with some serious survivor’s guilt. A chance meeting with a guy—who happens to be an aspiring tennis star—in her therapist’s waiting room results in an immediate connection, but she’s afraid that if she gets close to him, that he’ll get hurt. Kirkus notes that both leads are white.
These are a few years old, but how could I not include books written—or at the very least, published under the name of—an actual tennis star? Plot-wise, they sound like they could have been titled Gossip Girl: Tennis Academy. Based on the cover art, it looks like the leads in this book are white as well.
I started this list in the hopes of celebrating Serena Williams through children’s and young adult literature, but… do you notice anything distinct about the books on said list? Pretty white, right? Considering that the idea for this list was inspired by a black athlete, I just… sigh.
Given how white children’s and young adult literature continues to be, given this quote from Serena Williams’ 2015 essay from WIRED—I’m a black woman, and I am in a sport that wasn’t really meant for black people—the whiteness of this list is depressing, but not particularly surprising. And the fact that it’s not surprising is even more depressing. This has all been said before, and there are those out there who are tired of this conversation—but I find it notable that the people who are the loudest about being tired of the conversation are usually the same ones who already have plenty of representation in stories of all forms. If we don’t face the fact that there are problems in the first place—and not just face it, TALK about it—children’s and YA literature will never become more inclusive, more diverse, more true to the lives and needs and wants of all young readers.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.