Champions Adapt by Elisabeth Dahl
NPR’s Fresh Air recently aired an interview with Billie Jean King—winner of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles and champion of equal rights for women, both on and beyond the court.
I caught the broadcast while jog-walking down a neighborhood sidewalk. I hadn’t thought a lot about Billie Jean King since my preteen years, when tennis had been a favorite game and moving down sidewalks had been less about exercise and more about leaping from concrete slab to concrete slab, avoiding cracks. As I listened to the interview, I pictured the Billie Jean King of the seventies and eighties—she of the shag haircut and diving forehands.
During the interview, King talked about some of the mental habits that helped pin her to the top of the tennis rankings, year after year. She described trying to visualize and prepare for trouble spots that could arise during games, shaking off bad points, and focusing on the now. “Champions adapt,” she said. “Champions in life—all we’re doing is adapting. We adapt as we go through each day.”
I stopped mid-sidewalk to send myself a blank e-mail with the subject line “champions adapt.” Back at my desk that night, I listened to the interview again online, to make sure I’d heard King right.
Champions adapt. I liked this bit of wisdom. It’s something I’d been thinking about for some time—and writing about too, though less directly or succinctly. If you took my first middle-grade novel, Genie Wishes (Amulet Books/ABRAMS, April 2013), and boiled it over low heat for three hours, you’d find essentially the same message at the bottom of the pot: To succeed—and remain at peace—you need to adapt.
In the book, a Baltimore fifth grader named Genie Haddock Kunkle is elected to serve as the blogger for her class. And while this somewhat quiet girl is finding her voice as a blogger—writing on the school-assigned theme of “wishes, hopes, and dreams”—she’s also confronting a lot of the normal hurdles that fifth graders face. Should she start shaving her legs and get a bra? What about deodorant? And more profoundly, how’s she going to deal with the loss of her longtime best friend, Sarah, to the makeup-wearing, boy-crazy new girl? This loss is something she’d never anticipated, not in a million carpool rides.
Genie has a choice to make: She can keep trying to force an increasingly uncomfortable friendship triangle, which might buy her more time in Sarah’s company. But something in her says not to. Instead, she begins to adapt, not by changing herself but by gradually moving toward a new set of friends, friends who may suit her better in the long run anyway.
Over the few months since the book’s release, I’ve talked to a lot of kids who’ve read Genie Wishes. Readers—girls especially—seem to be reassured by the way that Genie navigates these social and personal changes without a lot of angst or hand-wringing. Genie is quietly self-assured—and it serves her well.
And that’s made me remember—when we talk to girls (and boys) about power and strength, we should also remind them that strength demands flexibility, and vice versa. Girls, we’ll say, part of your power comes from your ability to bend and grow as situations change.
Kids know change—if not in their own lives, then in others’. Parents are lost and houses foreclosed upon. Best friends get separated when school districts are redrawn. Doll collections get washed away in flood waters. And of course, on a more basic level, there’s no escaping the sometimes-strangeness that is puberty.
Adaptability is the essential response. The more we teach our girls and boys to stay in the ready position—knees bent, eyes alert, racquet in hand—the better off they’ll be. They won’t always know what’s coming, but they’ll know they’re prepared for it—as much as anyone ever can be.
In 2013, Billie Jean King became the first sports figure ever to be profiled in PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the video here.
Elisabeth Dahl writes for adults and children from her home in Baltimore. Genie Wishes is her first book. Her writing for adults has appeared at NPR.org, TheRumpus.net, and Baltimore Fishbowl. On Twitter, she’s @ElisabethDahl, and on the Web, www.elisabethdahl.com. She’s also on Facebook.
There’s more about Genie Wishes, including ordering information, at these sites: