In my next life I will come back as a roller derby queen. Since the majority of my adult life has come and gone in complete and utter ignorance of this sport, I figure that means it’s too late for me now. But the more I learn about the sport the more I like it. Women on roller skates knocking the bejeesus out of each other in a circular fashion? Yes, please! Not that the sport has ever been particularly well documented in children’s literature. Generally speaking, roller derby tends to show up in YA literature more often than not. Since kids don’t have roller derby teams in elementary school or junior high, fiction leaves them high and dry. That means nonfiction would have to be the place to go, but until Sue Macy decided to write Roller Derby Rivals there wasn’t much to find. Meticulously researched, funny, and fast, Macy and Collins (who perfected their partnership in their previous title Basketball Belles) give us a highly original sports book like no other. A slam bang offering (with an emphasis on the “slam”).
The year: 1948. The place: New York’s 69th Regiment Armory. The event: Roller derby, baby! It’s here that two derby rivals, Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn and Gerry Murray give life to the game. Toughie’s the bad guy in this storyline. A down and dirty girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Gerry’s the glamour girl and the crowd favorite. In a typical game the two take potshots at one another. It’s the era of television and the sport is more popular than ever. But the truth? These two gals are actually friends, and one couldn’t exist without the other. An extensive Author’s Note, Roller Derby Time Line, and listing of Sources and Resources (including Film Clips, Web Sites, and Books) alongside Source Notes and Roller Derby Rules at the start of the book give the tale context.
When writing this book, author Sue Macy had to decide what era of roller derby to cover. She definitely wanted to cover a rivalry, but would she go with something recent or older? Ultimately she went with an older rivalry, and one that wasn’t as well known today. The derby of the 40s and 50s was really something. Here you had post-war women quietly going back to their roles as wives and mothers, and meanwhile on the television other women were knocking the stuffing out of one another on a rink. As Macy puts it, “The bruising, brawling women of Roller Derby were a throwback to the raucous war years, when women’s achievements knew no bounds.” Finding examples for kids of occasions when the women of the past weren’t Donna Reed can be tricky. Here’s one such example.
One thing I’ve never really realized about the sport of roller derby is how similar it is to professional wrestling in terms of “story”. There’s a reason that roller derby, wrestling, and boxing became the most watched sports during the rising of television programming. As Macy explains in her Author’s Note, “they took place indoors and in a confined area, so camera operators could control the lighting and focus on the faces of the participants as well as the action.” Little wonder that personality became an integral part of the sport as well. You had your heroes and you had your villains. Macy acknowledges this in the text for only the briefest of moments right at the end when she writes, “Fans would be shocked to learn that the two women, sworn enemies on the track, actually get along just fine. After all, they need each other. Every hero needs a villain. And every villain needs a worthy opponent.” Admittedly I would have liked the book to spend just a little more time on this topic. The showmanship of roller derby becomes an important part of the sport and one begins to wonder what’s real and what isn’t (and if the audience is implicit in this show or unaware that it’s happening). But I suppose those aren’t suppositions for a picture book, no matter how cool the subject matter might be.
A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that I’m a hard-core stickler for accuracy in my nonfiction picture books. To be blunt about it, I’m not very nice. If I think that a book is dodging accuracy for the sake of interest (including fake dialogue, merging or making of characters, etc.), I get very down on the whole kerschmozzle. How then to judge a book where the original television footage is lost? It’s not as though Macy isn’t just as much a stickler for accuracy as I am. Heck, the woman’s first four books were edited by Marc Aronson, so backmatter and factual writing is important to her. In the case of this book her backmatter includes “An important Notice from the Author and Illustrator” in which they note that since no television footage of the December 5th match survives they had to recreate it from their sources. “All dialogue and skating action are dramatizations based on our research.” Some folks may balk at where their suppositions take them, but I think Macy keeps it pretty within the realm of possibility at all times.
Illustrator Matt Collins gives the entire enterprise a kind of hyper reality. He has a lot to play with here, too. From women flying over rails into audiences to the look and feel of the late 40s/early 50s, this is a cool enterprise. One shot of people gathered outside an appliance store to watch the televisions there has a brilliant view of the seams up the back of a mother’s stockings. There’s an attention to detail here worth noting. You are left in no doubt of the time and place.
One objection I’ve heard to the book is that the Author’s Note is so interesting it makes the rest of the book pale in comparison. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, though. That’s sort of kicking a book for having interesting source material. It also suggests that though the picture book is interesting, what the reader really wanted was a chapter book on the subject. And believe me, a chapter book on Gerry and Toughie would be fabulous, but that’s a different project. What we have here is a picture book that wants to show a rivalry and does so. And professional rivalries in children’s books can be rare things. Few books for kids tell the really interesting stories about political or sports rivals. Rollerderby Rivals just proves that you’ve gotta start somewhere.
If you tell a kid to find a nonfiction picture book about a sport, nine times out of ten they’ll grab a book about baseball. That’s because baseball makes for perfect children’s literature. Fiction, nonfiction, you name it, baseball is king. Once in a great while another sport will get their day in the sun, but it’s rare. For once, I’m happy to read a book about women. And since finding a book that discusses TWO female athletes at the same time is almost impossible (single bios proliferate but multiples, not so much) it’s just an extra treat that Roller Derby Rivals is as enjoyable as it is. Not like anything else out there, and worthy of note. Ladies and gentlemen, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
On shelves July 1st
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton by Meghan McCarthy
- Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith by Barb Rosenstock
Interviews: Sporty Girl Books talks with Macy a bit about this project.
A simply lovely book trailer for this book, featuring roller derby expert Gary Powers:
Curious to see what Toughie really looked like? I sort of adore this film she starred in. Love the narrator too.