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Above the Rim: An Interview with Jen Bryant and Frank Morrison

Sports!

Sports sports sports sports sports.

Happens every year. You start looking at the best books published since January and inevitably you come to the realization (or maybe you don’t) that shockingly few of the books in front of you are sports related. 2020, though, it’s a little different. This year we’ve seen a remarkably superior number of sports books for kids. Whether it’s Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Don Tate, or Who Got Game?: Baseball’s Amazing but True Stories by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by John John Bajet, or The Dream Weaver by Reina Luz Alegre, high quality sports-related books are hot.

To this list, I add today’s book. On-sale October 1st, it is not the biography of a particularly famous man. If you said his name to the average person on the street, you would not find too many of them aware of his legacy. Yet for all of that, he may have a more direct tie to a lot of what we’re seeing on our news channels today than most. The description tells it this way:

Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball is a poetic, exquisitely illustrated telling of basketball Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor and a celebration of standing up for what is right.

His story is especially timely as NBA players recently went on strike to protest racial injustice during the playoffs. Players protesting racial injustice in the NBA dates all the way back to January 16, 1959. After being turned away from a hotel because he was Black, Minneapolis Laker Elgin Baylor refused to play in that night’s game against the Cincinnati Royals.

Elgin Baylor is not a name that is familiar to young people today, but it should be. Elgin was the first NBA player to boycott and “speak out by sitting out” in the league’s early days. His quiet but effective act changed the rules for every NBA team. From that point forward, no NBA teams would stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant that practiced discrimination. Elgin’s ‘above the rim’ style and activism inspired basketball stars like Dr. J, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.

I had the chance to talk to Frank Morrison and Jen Bryant about the book. I made assumptions. They corrected those assumptions. And so:


Betsy Bird: Frank, from the moment I laid eyes on that first picture book of yours I ever saw, JAZZY MIZ MOZETTA, I’ve been taken with the way you tackle human limbs. Specifically, akimbo elbows and wrists. You are the king of the accentuated wrist and angled elbow, sir, and ABOVE THE RIM is no exception. Forgive me for asking this, because I really should know the answer, but is this the first time you’ve done a book about basketball? Because it really feels like you and the sport were made for one another.

Frank Morrison: Hi Elizabeth and thank you. This is actually my second book on basketball. My first book was with NBA All-Star Chris Paul.

BB: Oh, that’s right! Good reminder. Now, Jen, in your Author’s Note you basically say that Elgin didn’t brag enough. If he’s forgotten by some today, it may have something to do with his natural reticence to talk himself up. Looking at sports figures today, it definitely speaks to another time. How did you discover Elgin’s story in the first place?

Jen Bryant: My family has always enjoyed playing sports, watching sports and also reading about them. Our house is full of magazines like Sports Illustrated and adult biographies of athletes such as Joan Benoit (Olympic Gold medal-winning women’s marathoner), Jackie Robinson (first black player in the MLB) and Julius “DR. J” Irving (NBA Hall of Fame Player). While reading DR. J’s book, I came across a passage in which he recalled a childhood event: seeing Elgin Baylor play in a game on TV. He described that moment as a personal epiphany—and credits Baylor with showing him how being an athlete and an artist were not mutually exclusive. That intrigued me. I soon found lots of articles, videos and audio recordings that focused on Baylor’s unique and groundbreaking playing style, his segregated childhood in DC, his college experiences, and his quiet activism in Charleston, WV. My mission as a biographer is to find under-known, under-celebrated men and women and to bring their stories to a young audience. No one had told Baylor’s story for kids, and I hoped I could do it well enough.

BB: Frank, back to you, I think it’s time to settle the old baseball vs. basketball debate once and for all. As such, I have to ask you: Is it more fun to illustrate baseball or basketball? I don’t even know if you’ve ever done any baseball sequences before. I just want to get a sense of how you capture movement so eloquently on the page.

FM: My fine art style definitely found its way into Above the Rim. I felt like a movie director. At the end of each drawing, I ask myself if I could add a little more action or drama. I love painting reverse dunks and crossovers just as much as I love painting the Negro League shadow ball. That being said, mannerisms are my favorite sport.

BB: Jen, I’m always fascinated by books that come out at the right time with the right thing to say. Sports players boycotting games and speaking out by sitting out is not new, necessarily. But in the last few months we’ve seen such an increase in their statements, particularly in the COVID-19 era. Now you have a book about the first NBA player to do the same, only something like 50 years ago. How long have you been working on this book?

JB: I’m always reading, seeing, and listening to things that interest me and throwing them into paper and digital folders. When I read this question, I went back to see if I could find my earliest saved article or link on Baylor, and it was 2013. The Dr. J autobiography was published in November of that year also.  But I didn’t bring up Baylor with my agent, Alyssa Henkin, as a possible book topic until 2016. At the time, Alyssa knew almost nothing about Baylor or the early NBA, but she listened to my passionate pitch for why I should write about him for kids. She was really great about it and I owe her a lot for trusting me and believing in this project. Ditto for the editors at Abrams, who also supported asking the amazing Frank Morrison to illustrate!! Of course, we had NO idea how events would unfold in 2019 and 2020 to connect Baylor’s actions with those of current athletes. But it speaks, I guess, to the fact that some stories are timeless and to the fact that entrenched racism has a long, ugly history in our country.

BB: Frank, so often I’m fascinated by your use of color. Or, in one very specific case, the lack thereof. There’s a moment in this book when you show a glimpse of the Little Rock Nine and everything is black and white with the sole exception of the bright red book in a student’s arms. It’s as if a part of an old television news program has jumped off the page. Were there any hues or tones you particularly tried to highlight with this book?

FM: Color palettes set the mode. Each page warranted its own palette. Whether it is the twilight in a night scene, or one of my favorite pages the nostalgic black and white spread. The touch of red was used to highlight the importance of an education in the midst of chaos.

BB: Jen, much of what makes this telling of Elgin’s life so interesting is how you are continually tying his existence and accomplishments into the news of the times. A picture book biography, any picture book biography, runs the risk of losing context. Granted, there will be kids that need additional information to help them understand what’s going on. With that in mind, what would you say is the ideal age range of this title?

JB: Alas, I’m never one to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction! I realize that it’s an important and valid question and one that helps educators, parents, librarians determine the book’s target audience. But it’s a hard one to answer well because very young children and much older children can take something away from my picture book biographies, including this one. Abrams puts the age range of Above the Rim at 4-8. If I were visiting a school to share this book, I’d have no trouble doing sharing it with pre-K classes up through and including grades 5 and 6.

BB: And finally, for the both of you, what are you working on next?

JB: I’m working with Alex Cooper at Harper on a biography of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress. She co-sponsored Title IX, which became law in 1972 and was later named after her. A fascinating life!

FM: Next up is four more picture books and I’m proud to say wait for it, one of them I wrote. Kick Push with Bloomsbury is based on my children’s experiences with skateboarding and fitting in. You’ll need a seatbelt for this one because it is action packed.


Thanks, guys. Much appreciation to Jen and Frank for patiently answering my questions. Thanks too to Mary Marolla and the folks at Abrams Books for letting us all talk together.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.