Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Courtly Contenders

Any time of the year, anywhere in the world, it is guaranteed a sporting event is taking place in which the opponents have the spectators rooting for a favorite with every fiber of their being.  Why they cheer for one over the other is usually based on a combination of reasons.  They may believe one is superior in skill.  They may focus on the challenger from their home town, state or country.  They may have a connection from having played the sport themselves.  They may even know one or more of the participants personally.

Some rivalries last for a season.  Others have been going on for as long as anyone living can remember.  Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports (Candlewick Press, March 14, 2017) written by Phil Bildner with illustrations by Brett Helquist gives readers the reasons this competitive relationship is decidedly distinctive.

Hey, guys---
yeah, I'm talking to you.
You see those two names on the cover?
Martina and Chrissie?
That's Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

If you have never heard of Martina and Chrissie, the narrator of this book is about to reveal the most interesting things you need to know.  To begin we meet Chrissie who was born and raised in the state of Florida. Between five years of age and eighth grade she managed to perfect her game to be ranked the number one tennis player in the country.  Her persona on the court was one of quiet determination.  Her distinguishing two-handed backhand was legendary.

She was still in her teens when she played in her first Grand Slam tournament.  She didn't win but she never gave up, fighting her way back to take a match.  You better believe the crowd was cheering for Chrissie Evert.

Martina was from Czechoslovakia.  At the early age of four and a half you could see her swinging a tennis racket and hitting balls.  By the age of fifteen, she was the national champion.

One could say Martina's demeanor when playing was super-charged with emotion.  This woman's feelings were released for the entire world to see.  Her best strategy was rushing the net.  This was not typical for women tennis players but this is the way Martina wanted to play her game.

When Martina and Chrissie finally met on the tennis court, Chrissie won.  She did it again and again and again.  No one could beat her for five years.

Given this competition between the two you would consider them adversaries.  Add in the fact one is from the United States and the other is from a Communist country during the Cold War era, you would expect them to hardly speak.  This was not the case.  They were the best of friends.

After Martina won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon their rivalry was stepped up a notch.  Spectators never knew from year to year who would be the champion or who would be the runner-up.  In the midst of this constant exchange of being the best of the best, a new coach challenged their friendship.  It was tested.  After all was said and done, who was the winner?

Imagine sitting in a room with a circle of friends.  You are about to hear a story of one of the greatest rivalries in sport's history.  You lean in toward a guy who looks you straight in the eyes and starts chatting about two of the best female athletes in tennis.  This is exactly the way you feel when reading the words penned by Phil Bildner.  It's as if the setting wherever you are reading vanishes and you are in the same space with him.

His delivery is eager and passionate.  We know this because the enthusiasm he has for his subjects is conveyed through his sentence structure, word choices and punctuation.  For emphasis and to create a cadence he repeats certain key words.  Here is a sample passage.

Chrissie was this All-American girl.
Patience and poise and precision.
Calm and collected and completely in control.
Her ground strokes were perfect, perfect.
From the baseline, she was automatic, automatic.
And that two-handed backhand of hers---oh, man!
Everyone copied the way she hit it.

Rendered in acrylic and oil on paper the illustrations by Brett Helquist we first see on the matching dust jacket and book case (and throughout the title) are utter excellence.  Look at the design on the front.  The net holds the title text.  The two opponents, the two friends on either side of the net, are eyeing each other, ready for action.  To the left, on the back, in the center is what appears to be a replica of a photograph of the duo when they are older.  They are walking off the court side by side, holding their rackets.  Martina has her arm around Chrissie's shoulders.  The opening and closing endpapers are a deep, bright teal blue.

When featuring Chrissie, Helquist has a golden wash to his images.  For Martina the color is hues of blue.  Regardless of the size of the illustration, which he alters to heighten the narrative, there is intensity in the facial expressions and body movements.  To portray the emotional nature of Martina, he brings us very close to her face at one point.

The close-ups of the crowd scenes during games will have you pausing to look at each person in the stands.  When a match is being played he alters his style going from Chrissie to Martina almost like panels in a graphic novel.  He uses a thicker white line to separate the action, placing the frames on a diagonal.  Like the game of tennis, his images are dynamic and lively.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is when Martina and Chrissie are younger.  They are seated at a table eating lunch.  Martina is speaking and Chrissie is listening with a smile on her face.  It is an intimate moment during their friendship.  They nearly fill the left page with the table extending to the right.  A small bouquet is setting on the table with the text above it.  In this case the background color is a wash of purples.

I have already read this book not once, not twice, not three times but four times!  The words of Phil Bildner complemented by the art of Brett Helquist make Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports one of my favorite picture book biographies of 2017.  I highly recommend it for your personal and professional bookshelves.  There is a three page timeline of Martina and Chrissie Through The Years at the conclusion of the book.  It is followed by a list of sources, books, articles, audiovisual and websites.  It's also important to note that Phil, with clarity, explains the Cold War in the context of his narrative keeping the flow going.

To learn more about Phil Bildner and Brett Helquist and their other work please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Brett maintains a blog here.  You can view an interior image at the publisher's website.  Phil chats about the book at educator Alyson Beecher's website, Kid Lit Frenzy, during the cover reveal.  Educator Michele Knott offers talking points for this title on her blog, Mrs. Knott's Book Nook.  Enjoy the book trailer.

I hope you will all take a moment to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other selections by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I really love the look of this one - two strong, dedicated, talented, determined women facing off against each other as sporting rivals.