Brad Meltzer’s I am Billie Jean King (2019)

I am Billie Jean King (Ordinary People Change the World)

Written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, I am Billie Jean King, is a timely biography of activist and athlete Billie Jean King. Much of the text deals with gender inequality in sports, which is especially urgent given recent anti-transgender work to keep queer youth out of sports.

Billie Jean King was confronted with gender inequality in sports as a young girl when she realized that professional sports teams were comprised of men.

A friend introduced her to tennis and, with the support of her parents and a coach willing to work with children for free on public courts, Billie Jean King’s love for the game grew exponentially.

Along with her knowledge of the game, King’s awareness of the race and class dimensions of tennis increased. She was uncomfortable with the whiteness and the wealth of her peers and vowed to make the game more accessible when she became a tennis star.

King practiced and practiced. She competed at Wimbledon at the age of 17 and was ranked number three in the country when she started college. Since women athletes were so undervalued, King did not receive a scholarship, although her future husband, by all accounts a lesser player, did. Inequities mounted as King continued to play competitively, winning tournaments but getting paid far less for victories than men.

Eventually, Billy Jean King and several other women tennis players, called The Original Nine, created their own tournament to compete with and protest the pay inequalities they experienced. Fans paid to see the women’s impromptu tournament. Even though women tennis player had the support of a strong fan base, men continued to harass and bully women players. Bobby Riggs, one-time number one tennis player in the world, challenged Billy Jean King to a match. She refused, but another woman player, Margaret Court, accepted the challenge. She lost. This served as “evidence” of men’s superiority. After, Riggs victory against Court, King agreed to play against him.

The match, called the Battle of the Sexes, took place in Texas for a $100,000 payday in 1973.

King understood that she wasn’t just playing for money, she was playing for women and girl athletes everywhere.

Billy Jean King won.

Although King’s tennis career is centered throughout the text, it clearly intersects with her personal life, and her advocacy work. Meltzer explains that around the same time King was preparing for her match with Riggs, she was coming to terms with her sexual identity. She divorced her husband and fell in love with a woman named Ilana.

Meltzer writes: “Being gay means that if you’re a girl, you love and have romantic feelings for other girls – and if you’re a boy, you love and have romantic feelings for other boys.” Additionally, in word bubbles, readers are provided access to King’s thoughts. She explains her love for Ilana while Eliopoulos illustrates King holding a picture of the two women staring into each other’s eyes while clasping hands.

The picture book also references King’s advocacy work, including testifying before Congress about Title IX and working with her ex-partner, Larry, to establish World Team Tennis to provide women and men the opportunity to play together as equals.

Meltzer mixes comic-like panels linked by narrative text to move the story forward. This allows him to pack in the facts without making the book too text-heavy for young readers.

My one, minor issue, is the depiction of Billie Jean King. She is represented the size of a child throughout the text. This includes when she is testifying in front of Congress and playing against Bobby Riggs. Although a feature of the Ordinary People Series that the book is part of, it runs the risk of infantilizing a woman in a story about gender equality.

Overall, I think the book is great. I’ll keep a copy on my bookshelf to read with my soon-to-be first grader and highly recommend it for school and public libraries. I am Billie Jean King is a successful biography that does a brilliant job contextualizing King as an agent of change constrained by social circumstances until she transforms them. Even more, the text makes a strong case for equality in sports at a time when so many young people are being denied access to youth athletics for reasons similar to Billy Jean King – their gender identity.

This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ+ Kid Lit” project, which parallels a formal scholarly manuscript, The Transformative Potential of LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books, that will be available from the University Press of Mississippi Spring 2022. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ+ content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2018. Follow my blog to follow my journey!

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