Meet the Author: Judy Allen Dodson
Meet the Author: Judy Allen Dodson
The Ashe Brothers: How Arthur and Johnnie Changed Tennis Forever is a story that transcends sports. We sat down with archivist, librarian, and author Judy Allen Dodson to talk about her picture book debut, a layered story about sibling love and sacrifice.
What inspired you to write this lesser-known story about the close relationship between Arthur Ashe and his brother Johnnie?
I’m a huge fan of tennis, its history, and Arthur Ashe, so when I happened upon the story of Johnnie’s sacrifice for Arthur, I had to share my discovery. Initially, I never knew Arthur had a brother and then to have his brother make such a tremendous sacrifice for Arthur . . . my next thought was that this should be a children’s book.
Many times when we think of siblings, we tend to talk about their rivalries, but in this case, it was Arthur and Johnnie’s brotherly love that I wanted to highlight. Their close relationship is a prime example of what sibling love, sacrifice, and giving of oneself looks like.
Can you tell us about your process of writing the book? As a librarian, archivist, and children’s literature advocate, did your professional work experience help you?
As an archivist, my love of history and family stories is where I find joy, and I can get lost for hours learning, discovering, and connecting the threads of history together.
As a librarian, I used primary resources right at my fingertips. I went straight to the Mollie Huston Lee Collection at the Richard B. Harrison Community Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, and voilà! There were books that Mrs. Lee had collected about Arthur Ashe. They provided most of the information I needed to begin my deep dive into Arthur and Johnnie’s childhood. There, I found out Arthur chose to play tennis over baseball (initially his favorite sport). In fact, for years Arthur dreamt of being the Jackie Robinson of tennis and becoming the first Black male player to win a major championship. I also learned how intelligent and athletic Johnnie was growing up, just like Arthur.
While my professional background helped me navigate the research process, it was my heart that guided me as I started writing. With both, I hope I was able to give readers a glimpse of the era of segregation that Arthur and Johnnie grew up in and the true essence of their characters.
Is there anything that surprised you when researching for the book?
One thing that warms my heart every time I think about it is that both Arthur and Johnnie grew up on Brook Field Park—the largest segregated, all-Black playground in Richmond, Virginia. Arthur could look out his window and see the tennis courts just steps away from their house. Brook Field Park is where the magic began for Arthur and Johnnie.
Something that surprised me was that when Arthur won the 1968 inaugural US Open, his winnings were a mere $280. Because of his amateur status, Arthur was not eligible to receive the prize money. The runner-up received the $14,000 prize money.
Johnnie’s history was full of surprises as well. I found out that he had a full scholarship to study at Duke University but turned it down to join the Marines. I was surprised to learn that he had been wounded twice during his tours in Vietnam. I’m so grateful that Johnnie is still alive today to share his incredible story with us.
Unlike a team sport, tennis is an individual sport where the spotlight shines on a singular athlete. In a time of segregation, Arthur Ashe was a Black teenager playing a solo sport. That’s a lot of added layers of pressure, expectation, and hope.
Yes, there were a lot of internal stresses and external pressures on young Arthur. Everyday he had to push away the sadness of missing his mother, Mattie, who died when he was only six years old. The only time the grief went away was when he stepped on the court.
Arthur’s internal struggles mixed with the external segregation only made him want to succeed even more. He realized that he was playing for a cause larger than himself—equality. Arthur felt guilt for not marching during the Civil Rights movement with the other Black athletes like Muhamad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After he won the 1968 US Open, he knew he had a platform to speak out for equality.
As a tennis player yourself, what is it about the sport that you love?
Tennis is really a mental sport, like chess. You are calculating your every move almost before your opponent hits the ball back. I love the physical aspect of the sport, but really, it’s the mental gymnastics that intrigue me the most and put me in my happy spot when I’m on the court. An ounce of competition, not only in sports but in other areas in life, can be quite beneficial. One of the reasons Arthur helped start the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL) is to keep kids active both mentally and physically. Gosh, I love tennis!
As a recipient of both the SCBWI On-the-Verge Emerging Voices and Out from the Margin Awards, what have those honors meant to you?
Again, I want to thank SCBWI for honoring me with both awards. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the premiere and largest children’s writing organizations where creating literature for young people is its primary mission. With these accolades, I feel seen, and this lets me know that my voice matters as an early career, underrepresented creator of children’s literature. I thank SCBWI for recognizing the Ashe brothers’ untold story in children’s literature and understanding how it can inspire young readers to strive for their own goals, but also to care for others along the way, whether that be their siblings, friends, family members, or through a charitable act.
What message do you hope readers take away from Arthur and Johnnie’s story?
“Start Where You Are, Use What You Have, Do What You Can.” —Arthur Ashe
This is one of my favorite quotes from Arthur Ashe. This lets all of us know that even if we don’t have much to begin with, we should not be deterred from helping others. Johnnie always loved his brother and knew that Arthur was special. He never thought his sacrifice was anything other than love for Arthur. For young readers learning about this story, I want them to know that they carry a special light too. Being kind, giving grace, and showing up for their siblings or friends is what both Arthur and Johnnie did back in 1968. When young readers ask how can they continue the legacy of Arthur Ashe? Encourage them with Arthur’s quote. It doesn’t take much to help someone, and that support can start today.
Anything else you would like to add?
This story transcends sports. It’s truly a story about a brother’s love and sacrifice. Many times, we see only the popular athlete—the person who wins all the medals or always finishes first—but the story lies in who helped them achieve their goals in education, military service, entertainment, or in everyday life. In this case it was Johnnie who made the sacrifice for Arthur to become the first and only Black man to win the US Open. 2023 marks the 55th anniversary of Arthur’s historic win, but it’s also the anniversary of Johnnie’s selfless act of courage that will inspire readers to shine their light of love on others.