Mar 23, 2013

March Madness and Its Maker

Here's hoping that somewhere in the midst of bracket-tweaking, team-cheering, and post-game analysis some of the millions following the NCAA Tournament will need a breather and find their way here. Although I'm a die-hard baseball fan, I get swept up in the excitement, too. I have at least three teams to whom I pledge allegiance, and all three made it to the magical "64" this year. (To avoid alienating readers, I'm withholding names.) Unlike baseball, basketball is a sport that allows for players of any age or gender to be able to practice skills or just shoot hoops when alone, which is hard to say for many team sports. These are reasons to dedicate a post to basketball, but sharing powerful picture books is an even greater incentive to haul out my brightest spotlight and shine it on this book.
Carolrhoda Books (Lerner), 2013

The name James Naismith turns up regularly in trivia games, crossword puzzles, and even the occasional Jeopardy session. John Coy's non-fiction picture book about Naismith and the genesis of basketball should be read by anyone who has ever watched, played, or even heard of this game. HOOP GENIUS: HOW A DESPERATE TEACHER AND A ROWDY GYM CLASS INVENTED BASKETBALL is illustrated by Joe Morse and the subtitle says it all.
But please don't stop reading there. 
The text is crisp, controlled, muscular, and fast-paced; not unlike a competitive game of basketball. The muted colors, black-line edges, and intense expressions in the illustrations  are equally muscular and dramatic. In fact, the text and pictures combine to put the reader in the shoes of a  thirty-year-old teacher walking into a gym class of near-grown men who had already caused two teachers to quit.  The images of the aggressive players and their scowling features are enough to make many turn around and walk out. 
Not Naismith. 
He concocted  and adapted several other games, but injuries and fights continued. Drawing on a childhood memory, he imagined a skill-based game that limited body contact. When it came to ball-handling skills, their sprawling arms, legs, and massive hands made this the ideal batch of basketball guinea pigs. The photo of that original team in the back matter suggests the illustrations are no exaggeration of reality.
I particularly enjoyed the endpapers, which are the reproduced images of Naismith's two-page typed (and hand-revised) rules for the game. Thirteen rules, two-pages double-spaced. The official NCAA manual for 2012 has a four-page index, double columns and 9-point font!
I urge you to read this and share it with anyone who loves the game. Since reading it I can't hear a single squeaky sneaker on a basketball court, in the tournament  or otherwise, without picturing the man who launched a sport that now encircles the globe.
While you're at it, here  are several other basketball picture book titles to add to your basket or hold requests:
Candlewick, 2004

For lively rhyming text using the voice of the basketball try LET'S PLAY BASKETBALL, by Charles R. Smith, Jr. and illustrated by Terry Widener.

Sleeping Bear Press, 2005

Older readers will be intrigued by the colorful images and informative text in this basketball entry in the non-fiction series by Sleeping Bear Press:  J IS FOR JUMPSHOT: A BASKETBALL ALPHABET, by Michael Ulmer, illustrated by Mark Braught

Carolrhoda Books, 2011

The youngest, Nerf-ball chucking kids will be delighted with DINO-BASKETBALL, by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Barry Gott.

Fans of any age, or even **gasp** non-fans will find things to cheer for in these titles. Considering that odds of having "your" team win, or even reach the final four, comfort yourself with the thoughts that these are all winners. 

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