Review of the Day: Nothing but Trouble - The Story of Althea Gibson
Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch. Knopf Books for Young Readers (a Random House imprint). $16.99.
I’m not ashamed to say it. Say the name “Althea Gibson” to me a month ago and you’d have met a blank stare. Say it to me now, however, and you may suffer the indignity of finding me thrusting Sue Stauffacher’s newest picture book, “Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson,” into your arms while screaming into your ears its high points. This might be so bad either if the book only had a high-point here or there, but the fact of the matter is that “Althea Gibson” is ALL high points. It’s a rip-roaring, snorting, fast and frenzied, well-researched, reiterated, illustrated, formulated bit of picture book biography magnificence. With the author of the “Donuthead” books on the one hand and soon-to-be-recognized-for-his-magnificence artist Greg Couch filling in the necessary art, “Althea Gibson” has everything you could possibly want going for it. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s smart and interesting, and has a flawed heroine you can’t help but want to know more about. If your young child is looking for a biography of a woman and you don’t know where to turn, I can’t think of a better book available to you. There’s something about Althea.
Ask anyone. Ask her mama her daddy her teacher or the cop down the street that busted her for petty theft. They’ll all tell you the same: That Althea Gibson is nothing but trouble. More comfortable tearing up the playground in the 1930s than sitting at a desk in school, Althea has a reputation for recklessness. None of that is enough to scare off play leader Buddy Walker, however. When he sees Althea play sports, he can only see raw talent and untapped potential. With his guidance and the help of the Sugar Hill’s ritzy tennis court “The Cosmopolitan”, Althea is given the chance to improve her style. Problem is, she has a hard time with being polite, following the rules, and not punching out her fellow players’ lights. It takes time and patience and self-control to make Althea the best she can possibly be, but by 1957 she becomes the first African-American to win at Wimbledon. And though she could hog all the credit for herself, Ms. Gibson gives full credit to that amazing Buddy Walker who had the smarts to become her mentor.
It’s always more interesting to read about a flawed hero. Perfect people do not a fascinating story make. Maybe that’s why the trend in children’s biographies lately has been to tell the tale of those men and women who weren’t made of solid gold from birth onwards. Between Kathleen Krull’s, “Isaac Newton”, Laura Amy Schlitz’s, “The Hero Schliemann,” and now Stauffacher’s, “Nothing but Trouble,” biographies for kids are getting better and better with every coming year. The nice thing about Althea is that for all her pouts and ill-manners, she's shown here to be someone who could conquer the world if she just applied a little self-control. As Buddy tells her at one point, “You’ve got to decide, Althea. Are you going to play your game, or are you going to let the game play you? When I go to the jazz club, I play like a tiger, but I wear a tuxedo.” Stauffacher draws much of her dialogue out of Althea’s biographies “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody” and “So Much to Life For.” Even without such lines, however, the author knows how to put a good story together. This plot is carefully crafted. From the timeline in the back (written on tennis balls, no less) to the great opening line, (“Althea Gibson was the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem”) to the thin slices of her life, Stauffacher does a stand up job. As Althea’s biographer she prefers to concentrate on the role of Buddy Walker, even mentioning in her Author’s Note that “Though this is Althea’s story it is also Buddy Walker’s story.” The result is that this tale comes off as a tribute to mentors everywhere. To those people that see potential in certain kids and do what they can to bring such potential to light. And that is the nature of an entirely different kind of hero.
Flying just below the radar is illustrator Greg Couch. Ms. Stauffacher may have the wherewithal, wit, and smarts to think to bring Althea’s life to the page, but it is Mr. Couch’s illustrations that truly deserve attention here. Couch has taken a story that could have been accompanied by staid, simple drawings and instead imbued them with a kind of electricity. Althea doesn’t just leap off the page here. She crackles and snaps with an energy you don’t usually encounter on your average picture book bio. Couch has chosen to clothe Althea in a hyperactive rainbow that zigs and zags with the girl’s every movement and leap. Parents and teachers presenting this book to kids can ask them what they think this rainbow really means. And hopefully they’ll notice that when Buddy plays the saxophone (as he did in his own jazz band) the same rainbow colors come out of the instrument. Plus the fact that these rainbows are the sole spot of color against a sepia-tinged background of old photos and scenes from the 30s, 40s and 50s is a nice touch as well. And when, at last, you see Althea win her Wimbledon, she is surrounded at her acceptance speech by a rainbow that has aged and changed from pure primary colors to subtler hues. I also appreciate that there is nothing anachronistic going on in this book. Every picture feels like it has stepped out of history.
A co-worker of mine felt somewhat disappointed that the book ends as suddenly as it does. One minute Althea is learning the benefits of playing by the rules (while maintaining her fire) and the next she’s won Wimbledon and the story's over. I think this is less a flaw of this specific book than of the picture book biography format in general. You can’t linger on a year here or there, however much you might want to. And honestly, this is a book worth discovering. Stauffacher and Couch have found something to say about Althea that hasn’t yet been said in the realm of children’s literature and their passion in bringing Althea’s passion to life is worth taking note of. So stand back now. I’m going to say something and I’m going to say it loud. This book not only pairs well with “Wilma Unlimited” by Kathleen Krull, it may have supplanted it in my brain as my new favorite picture book sports biography. A must read pick.
On shelves August 14th.
First Lines: “Althea Gibson was the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem.”
Extra: An artist in the professional sense, Mr. Couch has more than a few paintings to his name. So we’re just going to present, without comment, his Giving Trees. It appeared in the “experimental poetry” journal Sidereality.