NCAA March Madness is here. While watching these athletes compete at such a high level, it’s easy to forget that they were all once kids with big dreams playing pick-up ball at the park. Plymouth resident Shelly Boyum-Breen, however, has not forgotten. She also hasn’t forgotten how hard it was, and still is, to be a young girl with big dreams of becoming an athlete. That’s why she created the Shelly Bean the Sports Queen book series for kids.
“If you look at the name, you can probably assume she’s based on me,” Boyum-Breen says. As a child, Boyum-Breen wanted to play sports that weren’t played by girls at the time. She didn’t have books that portrayed young girls as athletes; she had books that portrayed them as princesses. When Boyum-Breen was substitute teaching eight years ago, the Scholastic book sale form was sitting on the teacher’s desk, and she paged through it to see what books for young girl athletes were available. “All I found was cheerleading and horseback riding,” Boyum-Breen says. So she came up with a “queen” who also loved sports.
But, she says, “It’s not a book for girls—it’s a book with a girl main character. It’s a book for kids.” The message is not just that girls can be athletes; it’s about success and failure. “If you want to try something, you might not be successful the first time,” Boyum-Breen says. “But like Shelly Bean, if you fall down, you get back up and try again.”
In the first three books of the series, Shelly Bean plays catch, basketball and hockey—each for the first time. At the end of each book, once Shelly Bean has accomplished her goal of learning the new sport, she puts a homemade charm on her crown, making her the “Sports Queen.”
Boyum-Breen could be called the Sports Queen herself. Her love for athletics started around age 6, when she would scrape her small court at home free of ice in the middle of March, and imagine herself playing in a championship basketball game. “I would play out every scenario, and I was out there alone. My dog would be sitting in the snow bank,” she says. Boyum-Breen went on to play basketball at Brainerd High School, where she was the first girl in the school’s history to score 1,000 points during her career.
While she didn’t continue to play in college, Boyum-Breen went on to coach, and also worked for the WNBA. Now she wants to help kids who have big dreams and no specific role model to admire. “Boys and girls need a strong female role model, and Shelly Bean can be that for them,” she says.
Illustrator Marieka Heinlen says she was just as inspired as the kids Boyum-Breen was aiming for. “I am an artist and kind of an art nerd … I was never athletic,” Heinlen says. She adds that, through illustrating the series, she and her 5-year-old daughter Nora have learned that “there [are] so many good things about sports that you need in order to be a well-rounded person.”
When Heinlen’s daughter first saw her mother’s illustrations for the series, Nora was unimpressed, as she’s more of a princess fan. But Shelly Bean’s crown won her over, and now, Heinlen says, Nora will tell her, “I want to be Shelly Bean the Sports Queen!”
Boyum-Breen hopes to inspire kids to try all sorts of new things, from reading to math to making friends. And, to keep trying no matter what. “I have done that a million times in my life,” she says.