Playing to Win: How Althea Gibson Broke Barriers and Changed Tennis Forever

by Karen Deans (Author) Elbrite Brown (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

Although stars like Serena Williams cite Althea Gibson as an inspiration, Gibson's story is not well-known to many young people today. Growing up tough and rebellious in Harlem, Althea took that fighting attitude and used it to go after her goals of being a tennis champion, and a time when tennis was a game played mostly by wealthy white people in country clubs that excluded African Americans.

In 1956, she became the first Black American to win a major championship when she won at The French Open. When she won the celebrated Wimbledon tournament the following year, Gibson shook hands with the Queen of England. Not bad for a kid from the streets of Harlem. With determination and undeniable skill, Althea Gibson become a barrier-breaking, record-setting, and world-famous sportswoman.

This new and updated edition of this inspirational biography contains recent information on the impact of Gibson's legacy.

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School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 2-5--Born to sharecroppers in South Carolina, Gibson (1927-2003), a trailblazing Black tennis player, grew up with various family members in Philadelphia and New York City before finally reuniting with her parents in Harlem. Gibson struggled in school; she got into fights and skipped class. Gibson found her true passion when she was introduced to table tennis. Finding focus and motivation in competition, she committed to becoming the best--even when she lost and even after experiencing racism in the South when she went to college in Florida. Gibson's years of hard work and dedication paid off when she became the first African American to win a major tennis championship in 1956. She made it to Wimbledon and played there in 1951 and 1956. Deans skillfully shows the depth of Gibson's journey by including moments of discouragement and loss, and by emphasizing the importance of the support and encouragement from friends. The historical context of racism is handled well, and the clear text is concise. Brown's illustrations sing with dynamic colors. Illustrations of Gibson stand out in particular, evoking her immense skill with kinetic movement on the page. An author's note, a time line of events, a bibliography with further reading, and a list of informational websites are included. VERDICT A beautiful and thorough addition to every biography section.--Savannah Kitchens, Parnell Memorial Lib., Montevallo, AL

Copyright 2021 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.


Steptoe Award–winner Brown uses perspective and color to amplify emotion, occasionally replicating Gibson’s graceful form as she moves across the court and adding swirls of crayon to lend energy and movement to his compositions. Sunny yellow backgrounds accompany Gibson as she plays her way to victory over obstacles both social and personal, rounding out the portrait of this groundbreaking winner. 

Review quotes

Karen Deans
Karen Deans has worked as a journalist and is also a muralist, illustrator, writer, and entrepreneur. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and three children. Surprised when she was unable to find biographies of many of the women she admired to share with her daughter, she decided to write her own. Her other books include Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Elbrite Brown is an illustrator, artist, and high school art teacher. His illustrations for My Family Plays Music by Judy Cox won him a Coretta Scott King / John Septoe Award for New Talent. More than anything else, Elbrite looks at art as a way for him to inspire others. While doing research on Althea Gibson, he went to tennis matches and studied photographs and videos of the great star in action. He came to feel that Althea Gibson was as graceful as a ballerina and tried to capture just the right sense of movement in this book.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Holiday House
Publication date
January 20, 2021
BISAC categories
JNF018010 - Juvenile Nonfiction | People & Places | United States - African-American
JNF007100 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Biography & Autobiography | Sports & Recreation
JNF054120 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Sports & Recreation | Racket Sports
Library of Congress categories
United States
Tennis players
African American women tennis players
Gibson, Althea

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