August 26th marks Women’s Equality Day in the United States, when we celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving white women the right to vote. (Note: it took many more years before women of color were guaranteed that same right). This is an ideal day to celebrate the newly released picture book biography BILLIE JEAN! HOW TENNIS STAR BILLIE JEAN CHANGED WOMEN'S SPORTS by Mara Rockliff and beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley that introduces young readers to this iconic tennis player.
Rockliff, author of several historical books for children, offers a glimpse into Billie Jean’s life from childhood, through her rise in the tennis ranks and winning numerous major championships, to her historic televised “Battle of the Sexes” match with Bobby Riggs and forming an all-women’s tennis tour. A common theme throughout? Not accepting “no” for an answer when it came to playing the sport she loved or fighting for women’s rights and equal pay. Readers trying to break the habit of cursing might take a cue from Billie Jean. When she was miffed or missed a drop shot, she would call out “peanut butter!” It’s noteworthy that Rockliff highlights the value of training hard to win over the emphasis of looking pretty in addition to unbalanced media coverage with different questions directed to male competitors compared to athletes like Billie Jean. Both still occur.
The back matter includes an Author’s Note with specific statistics (she won 39 Grand Slam Championships); dates (1973 was the year the US Open Tennis Championship offered men and women equal prize money); and personal information (she and Olympic swimmer Donna De Varona founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and she also came out as gay in the 1980s).
This delightful, important picture book is a reminder that ensuring equality does not happen overnight, but thanks to leadership from athlete/activists like Billie Jean King, much progress has been made. It’s also a timely book choice to tie into the US Open Tennis Championship which occurs every August/September.