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Fed up with the lack of sports books for girls, this author and mom wrote one

Author Barbara Carroll Roberts talks to kids in the Girl Power Book Club at Scrawl Books in Reston, Va., about her new book "Nikki on the Line."
Author Barbara Carroll Roberts talks to kids in the Girl Power Book Club at Scrawl Books in Reston, Va., about her new book "Nikki on the Line." (Helen Roberts)

‘There were no basketball books with a girl as the main character,” said Barbara Carroll Roberts, “so I decided to write one.”

Her first novel, “Nikki on the Line,” is just what her daughter, Helen, was looking for in elementary and middle school.

Helen, who played basketball from second grade through college, found few books that showed girls actively involved in competitive sports. In contrast, her older brother had his pick of tales of sports-playing boys.

Roberts wanted to upend the sports story in another way, too.

“The central character is usually the star or becomes the star,” Roberts told KidsPost from her home in Oakton, Virginia. “I wanted to focus on the experience of finding your place on the team when you’re not the star. That’s the reality for most kids who play sports.”

In the book, 13-year-old Nikki is a strong player on her county league team, but when she and her best friend try out for and make an elite club team, Nikki quickly discovers that she must play at a much higher level. The additional expenses for travel and uniforms are hard on her single mom. And Nikki has chores, like babysitting her younger brother when her mom works, that affect her practice time.

Nikki questions herself, wondering whether her efforts are worth it. She knows her short stature will always hold her back in a game where height gives an edge. Is her love of basketball enough to keep her going?

'Writing is like sports'

When it comes to writing, Roberts often feels like her persistent character. She wrote her novel off and on for years, but she advanced tremendously when she went to graduate school to study writing for children. An especially helpful teacher was the popular author Gary D. Schmidt.

“Writing is like sports,” Roberts said. “There are skills that you can develop. No one gets by on raw talent.”

Growing up in Cupertino, California, Roberts was, she said, a “very active kid who didn’t like to sit still.”

But only in high school, in the 1970s, did she have a chance to try organized sports. They hadn’t been widely available for girls before, but a federal law — Title IX (Title 9) of the Education Amendments Act — changed that. It stated that boys and girls should have access to the same opportunities in public education, including sports.

Roberts then embraced basketball, softball, track and field, badminton and her favorite, field hockey. As she grew older, she became an avid horseback rider.

“I also spent hours in our driveway, under our basketball hoop, rebounding for Helen,” Roberts said with a laugh.

Real girls inspire

Getting to know Helen’s teammates over the years made Roberts keenly aware of the need to create a fictional team that reflected what she saw in real life: a diversity of race, culture and body type.

And she wanted to reflect the girls’ competitiveness and team spirit. “There is a joy in physical movement and working together,” she said. “That should be celebrated in books for girls and boys.”

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What: Barbara Carroll Roberts will speak about “Nikki on the Line.”

Where: Bards Alley, 110 Church Street NW, Vienna.

When: April 27 at 10:30 a.m.

How much: Free.

Best for: Age 8 and older.

For more information: Call 571-459-2653.