This month, author-illustrator Matt Tavares (Dasher; Hank Aaron’s Dream) releases his first middle-grade graphic novel. Hoops fictionalizes the true story of Judi Warren and the 1976 Warsaw High School girls’ basketball team, which fought for gender equality as well as the state championship. Tavares spoke with PW about interviewing the real-life team members and shining a light on the heroism of regular kids.
When did you first learn about Judi Warren and decide this was a tale you wanted to tell?
I first learned about this story in early 2016 and read a book called We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History by Phillip Hoose. I was thinking of it as a [nonfiction] picture book, but the deeper I got into it, it became a whole different thing. At the time my daughters were 13 and 10, when I first thought of doing a graphic novel. I was watching them read Roller Girl and Smile, and I saw how they devoured these books.
Finally I got the idea that I could tell the story as fiction, inspired by a true story. That’s when I realized I had the freedom to add characters if I needed to, and to give each character a distinct personality and develop their friendships and build the tension between them.
You’ve done several stories centering around sports. What draws you to sports stories as subject matter?
There’s this natural drama that’s inherent in sports. I’ve often used it as a backdrop for different kinds of stories. Within a team, you have lots of drama. My other sports books are about professional athletes. When my younger daughter was in elementary school, we had this parent breakfast and there was this video where everyone shared what they wanted to be when they grew up. Maybe 80% of kids wanted to be some kind of professional athlete. I felt like maybe I was contributing to that. I wanted to let these kids know that there are lots of other great things to be in this world, and you can make a big difference without being a baseball player. This story is a sports story, but the heroes are regular high school kids.
Did you show your daughters parts of it along the way? What have their thoughts been?
My older daughter, Ava, who is now a freshman in college, passed it around her college dorm, and I was getting lots of feedback from kids in college, so that was cool. And my younger daughter, Molly, had read the sketch version, the dummy. At one point she felt like Judi’s hair looked too much like Dora the Explorer. [laughs] They’re willing to give brutal feedback when it’s called for.
What was it like to interview some of the people who were actually involved in that story?
It was really great. The three main characters in the book are loosely based on my conversations with Judi Warren, Lisa Vandermark, and Cindy Ross Knepper. They were all so generous with their time and excited to talk about all this stuff. Once they got talking, they had all these stories. Lisa went off on some different tangents, and that’s part of what led to wanting to make this longer format book. She told me a story about how in elementary school there was this awesome sledding hill, but only the boys could go down it. One day at recess she was so fed up with that, she grabbed a sled and went down the boys’ sledding hill. And a bunch of boys saw her and tackled her and knocked her off her sled. And she got sent to the principal’s office. Even decades later as she was telling me this, she was trembling because she was so disgusted remembering this. She said, “I’m sorry, I’m getting way off topic here.” [But] I ended up including that scene in the book.
Hoops: A Graphic Novel by Matt Tavares. Candlewick, $12.99 Mar. 14 ISBN 978-1-5362-3195-3