Through the collaboration of esteemed authors and illustrators, nonfiction picture books thankfully disclose and showcase people, events, and the world around us which has not received the attention they deserve. Above The Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball (Abrams Books for Young Readers, October 6, 2020) written by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Frank Morrison is a fascinating account of a basketball legend who played with a signature new style. At twenty-five years old he also took a stand against racial discrimination when few had the courage to do so. His story is one you will long remember.
On a steamy summer day in 1945,
a boy and his brothers
played stickball in the street.
There were other parks hosting a variety of sports, but they were for whites only. This little boy was black. His given name, Elgin, represented his father's favorite watch. At an early age he knew the value of time. Time and change could work together for good.
At the age of fourteen Elgin and the neighborhood boys finally had a hoop they could use for a game of basketball. Elgin was not much of a talker; he simply played his best game. His technique was startlingly unique. Everyone stopped and stared at Elgin. He was a natural. His jumping and leaping earned him the nickname of Rabbit.
Springarn High, an all-black school, was where Elgin starred in organized, indoor sports. He could do anything from anywhere on the court. Unable to attend a university in his hometown due to whites only, he headed to the College of Idaho. People in Idaho were amazed at Elgin's display of basketball skills. His first winter with the team brought them victories. Another victory happened at the same time; Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.
Transferred to Seattle, Elgin continued to make the news with his playing. So did black students in Arkansas who attended classes in an all-white school. In 1958 Elgin started playing professional basketball. It was a hard life with not the same perks or popularity it garners today. Travel and sleeping accommodations were rarely the best. While these players struggled, so did a group of young black women and men who chose to sit at a lunch counter in Wichita, Kansas for whites only.
In 1959 Elgin and his team arrived in West Virginia. They walked away from all the whites only hotels. Elgin ended up eating a cold meal alone in the guest house they found would house everyone. When it came time to play the game that night, Elgin refused to dress in his uniform and play. He sat on the bench during the game. This action by Elgin Baylor changed the rules of the NBA. No team would any longer frequent a hotel or restaurant that practiced racial discrimination. During his career, Elgin Baylor made history with his singular moves on the court. His move behind the court sidelines in 1959 created a lasting change, a win against practiced prejudices.
Research is evident in the intimate portrait painted by the words written by author Jen Bryant. Descriptive adjectives and verbs recreate vivid moments in the life of this accomplished sport and activist figure. At several crucial points in the narrative Jen Bryant repeats key phrases for emphasis. Small bits of conversational remarks add to the authenticity. Another superb technique is the parallel of Elgin's achievements with those of other civil rights figures and events. Here is a passage.
He'd HANG there, suspended, floating like a bird or a cloud,
changing direction, shifting the ball to the other side,
twisting in midair, slashing, crashing,
gliding past the defense, up---up---above the rim.
And with a flick of his wrist,
or a roll off the fingertips,
he put the ball IN.
The way he played was so
different that people
stopped what they were doing
Looking at the open dust jacket on the right, front, artist Frank Morrison gives Elgin Baylor a long body to place importance on his abilities on the basketball court. He was a giant in his maneuvers and overall performance. Elgin Baylor's body is varnished to shine. To the left, on the back, an interior image is used. It's a close-up of Elgin Baylor holding his NBA Rookie of the Year trophy with a sea of spectator faded faces to the left and right of him.
On the book case, a darkened canvas shows a younger Elgin Baylor playing on the basketball court alone at night. On the left the hoop extends from the upper, left-hand corner with a basketball moving to go through it. Along the bottom is the presence of a home and city lights in the distance. On the right Elgin is leaping up and leaning back after the ball releases from his hands. You can almost hear the air moving with the precision of the throw.
The opening and closing endpapers are a muted, dusty shade of blue mirroring the color of Elgin's uniform with the Lakers. On the title page, the visual of his uniform number and name provides a background for this player leaping for a shot with one hand on the basketball. It is a smaller version of the front of the dust jacket. The verso and dedication pages use the illustration from the book case.
These striking images by Frank Morrison are rendered
using oil on illustration board.
They are atmospheric, dramatic, poignant, and highly animated. Their size enhances the narrative and its pacing. They are single page, edge to edge, and double-page, edge to edge. Their perspective shifts with the story. (You will literally get goosebumps and gasp at some of the scenes.)
One of my many, many favorite illustrations, okay two of my many, many favorite illustrations are when Elgin Baylor is younger and first demonstrates his skills, and the day after he sits out the game in protest at West Virginia. In the first against a pale blue sky with peach and pink clouds Elgin Baylor soars legs spread wide as he leaps, one arm down at his side and the other reaching up as the basketball leaves his fingertips. Behind and around him is a starburst when the sun catches something shiny. This is a single-page painting. In the second scene, across two pages, a group of four black youth are gathered and reading an open newspaper sports pages. Two are positioned on either side of the gutter. The intensity in their faces is wonderful. Behind them are city buildings and a fence indicating their court. On a pole with a backboard is a wooden bucket held together with metal hoops.
Even after several readings I am astounded at the history taking place in this book when I was only a little girl. (Elgin Baylor retired from the NBA a year before I graduated from high school.) This title, Above The Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball written by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Frank Morrison is an exquisite nonfiction picture book biography. The words can be read repeatedly, and the artwork invites scrutiny. As a read aloud it will not only inform but promote discussions and research. At the close of the book are an author's note, further book reading, websites, and audio recordings, special sources for young readers, notes, and a detailed timeline. I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.
To learn more about Jen Bryant and Frank Morrison, please visit their respective websites by following the link attached to their name. At Jen's site there is a link to preview pages from the book. Jen Bryant has accounts on Facebook and Instagram. Frank Morrison has accounts on Facebook and Instagram. At the publisher's website is a video with Frank Morrison speaking about the art for this title. At A Fuse #8 Production, School Library Journal, Elizabeth Bird, the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system, interviews both the creators of this book.
UPDATE: The Horn Book, Five questions for Frank Morrison, February 10, 2021. It is an informative interview about this title.