The year was 1986. Montreal, Canada. The sun beat down on me as I happily clutched my plastic souvenir Expos cap. It was my first time at a live Major League Baseball game. I remember the cheers rolling through the crowd. I remember the scent of grilled hot dogs and salted popcorn floating on the air. But I don’t recall wondering why there weren’t any female players on the field. Baseball was a boys’ game. At least, that’s what we were told.
Growing up, I saw a few more baseball games live, cheering on the Blue Jays at the former Sky Dome. Closer to home, I cheered on my older brother at his Little League games. My brother and a few of our friends used to play our own little baseball games in the backyard. Home plate was the back stoop, first base was the concrete step by the shed, and my father’s flagpole stand and the old picnic table bench served as second and third base, respectively. It was during these impromptu games that I did begin to wonder why girls couldn’t play in the MLB, and to wonder why there were no girls’ teams in the local Little League. Why was it strictly a boys’ game?
As I got older and both my love of reading and baseball grew, I also realized something was missing from the novels I got my hands on—very few of the girls played sports. They certainly didn’t play baseball.
Then, in 1992, A League of their Own came out, dispelling the myth that baseball was a game for boys and boys alone. Inspired by the real-life but short-lived All-American Girls Professional Baseball League [AAGPBL], the movie chronicles the journey of a group of women who played professional ball in the 1940s and 50s. Not softball—baseball. I can recall sitting on the edge of my seat in the theatre, eyes wide, pride surging through me. Girls from all different backgrounds were playing the boys’ game. Not just playing it, but kicking butt. I’d had no idea this league had existed, and I’m sure a lot of people were in the same boat.
The main character, Dottie Hinson, was based on a real woman who’d played in the AAGPBL. She was strong yet sensitive. Resilient and bold. She was exactly the kind of female ballplayer I wanted to see in the young adult books I read. Not a character who had to prove herself on a team of boys, but one who already thrived as a player in her own right.
When I rediscovered my love of YA books several years ago, (both reading and writing them) I was glad to see there were more female-centric YA sports stories than there used to be. Over the last little while, there have been depictions of female soccer players, hockey players, and football players, to name a few. I was also thrilled to come across a couple of YA books featuring female ballplayers who strived to prove their worth on boys’ teams. While these are great books, I still wanted to read about the girl who didn’t have to prove herself, the one who existed in a reality where girls’ baseball was established and accepted and her struggles stemmed from other areas of her life.
A few years ago I attended one of my son’s Little League games. A 16-year-old girl from the girls’ league was performing the umpire duties. She was tough and disciplined, supportive, athletic, and beautiful. As I watched, my writer’s brain began to work overtime, and a character took shape in my mind. A female character who had established herself as a ballplayer but struggled with health issues, an overprotective dad...and her childhood nemesis. That’s when it hit me: if I wanted a YA book like this, I was going to have to write it. I had to write the book I wanted to see on the shelf. So I did.
Ali Benton spilled from my head onto the pages. She’s a girl who, as she puts it: “loves a shiny new pair of cleats but is a sucker for pretty clothes, too.” She’s got her flaws, no doubt (don’t the best characters?) and her impulsivity may be her undoing, but she exudes resilience and courage in the face of the health issues that threaten her ability to play ball. She demonstrates that girls can be both strong and vulnerable. She’s living in a world where the boys’ game has become the girls’ game, too.
So, write what you love. Write what you want to read. Follow your passion, and that passion will be reflected in your work.
I’m so proud of A Heartbeat Away from You, and I’m incredibly grateful to Sword and Silk for believing in it as much as I do. I’m also beyond excited that I’ll no longer have to search for the book I want to see on the shelf.