Roberts is a graduate of Hamline University’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. She lives outside of Washington, D.C., with her family and their many pets.
Heather Smith of Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, California, was on the children’s Indies Introduce committee that selected Roberts’ debut. She said, “Nikki on the Line thrums with life, energy, and adolescent self-discovery. With a relatable, driven protagonist, Roberts deftly weaves a story of realistic struggles through themes of genetic gifts and curses — and their complicated relationship with who we choose to be. Fun and perfectly balanced, it’s impossible to put down, even for readers who know nothing about basketball.”
Here, Smith and Roberts discuss her debut novel.
Heather Smith: Do you remember which idea made you realize you had a story you wanted to tell?
Barbara Roberts: When I was a pre-Title IX athlete in high school, there were no books in our library about girls who loved sports. By the time my sports-loving daughter was reading middle-grade books — so many years after Title IX — I assumed she’d find plenty of books about girls like her. I was disappointed to discover that I was wrong. There were (and still are) very few books about young female athletes. That was when I started thinking about writing a book about a girl who was passionate about playing basketball.
But beyond that, I felt drawn to tell a story about a girl who loves playing sports, but who is not The Star. Because, of course, the majority of kids on every team, by definition, are not The Star. I wanted to tell a story about what it’s like to be one of those kids.
HS: How did you develop Nikki’s teammates into distinct, lifelike personalities?
BR: I’ll be honest, dealing with a cast of 10 girls and trying to portray them as unique individuals took a lot of thought and work! But this was very important to me, because first, I didn’t want readers to get mixed up about who was who; second, I wanted to show how a group of very different people can come together to form a cohesive team, which, to me, is one of the magical things about team sports. So I started with distinct pictures in my head of what each girl looked like, what position she played, her particular basketball skills, etc. I wrote down the descriptions, then I hung my “team roster” on the wall above my computer. As character quirks came up while I was writing, I added those quirks to my descriptions. This helped me keep each girl in sharp focus.
HS: Many of the adults in Nikki’s life are very supportive. Are any of them based on real people?
BR: My children were fortunate to have a number of wonderful coaches while they were playing youth sports, and Coach Duval is a composite of the best aspects of those coaches. I didn’t have specific adults in mind for the other characters, though now that I’m thinking about it, when I was growing up, my best friend’s parents embraced me as almost another daughter, and those relationships were so important to me. Perhaps I was unconsciously remembering those wonderful people as I created Adria’s parents.
HS: What sort of research did you pursue for your book (basketball, genetics, family legality, etc.)?
BR: I spent 15 years inside basketball gyms watching my daughter and her teammates practice and compete — from second grade through college. And I paid close attention, though not with the “laser-beam eyes” of a couple of the parents in my book, I hope. I found the process of how a coach goes about teaching specific skills and how a team comes together really interesting. And there’s a rhythm and grace to basketball that drew me in. I also read many books and articles about coaching philosophies, youth sports, and appropriate training programs for young athletes. Regarding genetics, I started with the classroom materials my children used in middle school, because I wanted to make sure the work Nikki and her classmates did was at the right level. Then I dug deeper in books and online sources to answer questions I had about sperm banks as well as specific kinds of inherited traits such as left-handedness and Nikki’s different-colored eyes.
HS: What do you feel is the heart of Nikki’s story?
BR: To me, the heart of Nikki’s story is a girl trying to figure out which goals are worth working toward and how hard she’s willing to work to achieve those goals — a girl discovering who she can be.
Nikki on the Line by Barbara Roberts (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 9780316521901, Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale Date: 3/5/2019.