August 6, 1926 was a bad day for a swim between England and France: the water was choppy; it started to rain; and the strong current was against Gertrude Ederle, a 19-year-old long-distance swimmer from New York City. Nevertheless, she persisted, becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel and setting a new world record (14 hours, 31 minutes) that stood for 24 years.
“Women [like Gertrude Ederle] pushed themselves to the limit for all womankind,” says Rachel Ignotofsky, author-illustrator of Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win (Nonfiction. 10-14). “It’s exciting to see them debunk the myth that women’s bodies are inherently weak, and the social change that comes as a result of them as a symbol for strength.”
To read Women in Sports is to know that the phrase “you throw like a girl!” deserves to be a compliment. The inclusive, inspiring illustrated anthology profiles pioneering female athletes of all shapes, sizes, sexualities, ethnicities, ages, and abilities: from Madge Syers (1881-1917), the first woman to win two medals in figure skating at the same Olympic Games, to Simone Biles, the 4’8” star of the current U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team.
“[W]ith each generation, women defy expectations and accomplish feats of strength that challenge the status quo,” Ignotofsky writes in introducing Women in Sports. “This book is filled with stories of little girls who grew up to achieve their greatest dreams—stories of women who pushed themselves to the limit, did the impossible, and became legends.”
Each of the female athletes profiled receives a striking full-page portrait by Ignotofsky, who holds a degree in graphic design. Opposing pages contain concise biographies of the women, adorned by fun facts: Syers, for example, “Began the trend of skating in calf-length skirts so judges could see her footwork.” Biles “Eats pizza after every meet!” And roller derby queen Ann Calvello, who helped develop the aesthetic and attitude of modern-day derby, was “Nicknamed ‘Banana Nose’ because she broke her nose 12 times in the rink.”
“I would describe [my style] as colorful, chock-full of information, and playful,” she says. “Even though the style is naive, it ends up being very complicated because of the density of the illustrations—childlike wonder with all the complexities of infographics.”
In determining which athletes to include, Ignotofsky had three main criteria: she wanted to feature a breadth of sports (dog mushing, polo, snowboarding, race car driving), athletes from diverse backgrounds, and, especially, those who used their fame and fortune to fight for social justice.
“Sports is just such a powerful form of entertainment and media,” Ignotofsky says, “and what happens when these woman, who in general were thought of as weak, prove the world wrong and are propelled to superstar status? What do they do with that status?
“A lot of these women in the book became public figures who fought for good,” she says, “whether they became ambassadors for peace, members of parliament, or started foundations, and so that was also something I wanted to keep my eye on when researching and developing the list.
“It’s not just about who can kick the ball the hardest,” she says. “It’s about kicking the ball the hardest and breaking the glass ceiling for everyone.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.