I was inspired to create this list after reading the Track series by Jason Reynolds followed by Lila Quintero Weaver’s excellent middle grade book, My Year in the Middle. I assumed that I would find a lot of books for this list.
Instead, I was surprised by the dearth of #OwnVoices Track and Field children’s books given the dominance of people of color in this sport. Maybe I am missing books? Can you help me out with suggestions? Thanks so much!
I want to cover more #OwnVoices sports books for kids. What sports would you like me to cover?
p.s. As always for my #OwnVoices lists, I include the best children’s books on this topic including diversity and nondiversity picks.
#OwnVoices Diversity Track and Field Books for Kids
Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Jesse Owens from Jesse Owens Site
Weatherford captures exactly what Jesse Owens went through, from his childhood to the Berlin Olympics, in detailed free verse poems. That he was the fastest man at the Olympics, defying Hitler’s chance to showcase White Supremacy is well-known. What is less known is that the Berlin crowds cheered for Owen’s four Olympic gold medal performances. And his German opponent in the long jump befriended him. Rising from poverty, it was his track coach, Coach Charlie Riley — a white man — who developed his talent by coaching him in the morning because Jesse worked after school. While Jesse Owens showed that the color of his skin didn’t matter when it came to setting track records, it did affect Owen’s ability to get endorsement deals. This is a great picture book to discuss the relationship between race and sports. Compare Usain Bolt to Jesse Owens, for example, and the opportunities each had post Olympics. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
Jesse Owens: Olympic Star by Patricia and Frederick McKissack
The son of sharecroppers, Jesse grew up sickly with weak lungs. When his family moved to Ohio to escape Jim Crow South, he joined the track team at his high school. Running helped his lungs and he made a name for himself as a fast runner and was recruited by Ohio State College. The Summer Olympics in 1936 were held in Nazi Germany where Adolf Hitler considered Jews and people of color as inferior to whites. Jesse Owens and his black teammates dominated track and field events at the Olympics where Jesse took home four gold medals. Both the highs and controversies of Jesse Owens’ life are detailed in this early chapter book biography. [nonfiction, ages 6 and up]
My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
This is a post-Civil Rights Movement story with a slow build and a quiet rhythm set in the 1970s in a small fictional town in Alabama. Lu Olivera sits in the middle row in her 6th grade class, the no man’s land of desegregation. It’s the line she teeters on being Argentinean-American and on the verge of losing her newly boy-crazy friends. There are lines she likes to cross like the finish line of a distance running race, but taking sides based on race is not one of them. But her new running friend Belinda is black and the boy she likes is liberal, and now she’s not sure where she belongs — in the middle, on the white side, or on the black side. This is a timely story that will resonate for anyone who’s faced decisions between right and wrong and speaking up or staying quiet. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Track series by Jason Reynolds
I have a post on this excellent series here.
Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army by Art Coulson, illustrated by Nick Hardcastle
Carlisle Indian School was one of the residential boarding school created to “re-educate Native American children” by crushing their cultural heritage. Sports were one of the only ways to get privileges such as more food at these schools. Under Glenn “Pop” Warner, a white coach, the football team thrived. Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes of his era, a multi-sport athlete, adept at track and field, baseball, and especially football. Both Jim’s Olympic experience at Decathlon and the Army versus Carlisle football game are detailed in this book, [advanced picture book biography, ages 7 and up]
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin*
*This is not an #OwnVoices book, but I include it because it is exceptionally well written and describes the inequities at Residential School between athletes, teachers, non-athlete students. It also casts light on Pop Warner and how he benefited from and exploited Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team is an astonishing underdog sports story―and more. It’s an unflinching look at the U.S. government’s violent persecution of Native Americans and the school that was designed to erase Indian cultures. Expertly told by three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin, it’s the story of a group of young men who came together at that school, the overwhelming obstacles they faced both on and off the field, and their absolute refusal to accept defeat. [nonfiction chapter book, for ages 10 and up]
More Great Track and Field Diverse Books for Kids
Green Eyes and Ham by Mary Penny
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Abraham, “Ham”, has been raised by his mother, a single minister, in a small town. After a disastrous elementary school experience, he’s been homeschooled and has spent more time with the elderly church ladies than children his own age. After his mother’s stress level creates health problems, close family friend Deuce encourages her to let Ham attend public school for 8th grade. This is a tough change, but a new neighbor and friend Fey helps. She helps him navigate the sometimes tough kids, like Royce, who makes fun of him because his cat Buster follows him to school, or Bijou, who isn’t pleased when Ham is a better runner than she is and threatens to usurp her position on the cross country team. Ham also meets Micah, who has a rough family life but is very cute, and seems to want to be Ham’s friend… and perhaps more than a friend. After an incident where Ham falls in the creek and Bijou steals his bike, Ham is increasingly confused by Micah’s friendship with the troubled girl but is also confused by his growing feelings. Ham’s mother can sense that Ham is struggling, and is very supportive, but also can’t answer all of his questions about his emerging identity. Deuce, who has recently lost longtime friend Mr. Flynn to cancer, is also supportive and helps Ham with his running. Ham is made team captain, which angers Bijou, and when Buster goes missing, Ham suspects she had something to do with it. Unfortunately, this leads to an unfortunate incident with Micah that ends with Ham being interviewed by the police. How will Ham navigate school and friendships after this trauma?” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz*
*David Diaz is accused of sexual misconduct.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman is an inspirational biography about the life of Olympic Gold Medalist Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) who overcame infantile paralysis (caused by the poliovirus) as a child to become a gifted track athlete. She transcended her childhood physical disability to win three gold medals in track and field in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and also became a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer. [biography picture book, ages 6 and up]
This review is by Paula Yoo as part of her post on Great Biographies for Kids.
Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman: Olympic High Jumper by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jump Champion by Heather Lang, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
I’d compare this more picture book biography to Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman: Olympic High Jumper as underscoring the obstacles of racism and poverty that Alice Coachman faced at home in light of her Olympic gold medal achievement. Heather Lang, because she wrote this book in prose, gives a more complete picture of Coachman’s life. I’d pair both books together, but if I were to chose just one, Queen of the Track would be my pick. As Lang noted in her author note, Alice Coachman paved the way for track stars Wilma Rudolph, Evelyn Ashford, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. [picture book biography, ages 5 and up]
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlov Miller, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Miller’s story about four girls who want to watch a parade in their hometown wonderfully showcases how Clarksville put on their first event for blacks and whites in the town’s history. Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph made history with her three gold medals, but this picture book — a perfect blend of fiction and biography — shows how she inspired change for the better in everyone, including the four girls in the book who admire her! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensey and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Jessica lost both her legs as a result of the Boston Marathon bombs and this her story of healing and the assistance dog, Rescue, who is by her side today. Their story is one of resilience, hope, and most of all, friendship. Because, after all, dogs are man’s best friend. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More Track and Field Middle Grade without Diversity
The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, The First Women to Run the Boston Marathon by Kristina Yee and Frances Poletti, illustrated by Susanna Chapman
Bobbi Gibb’s story is told in prose and verse in this picture book biography. She was told that women were incapable of running marathons. The longest race women were allowed to race at that time was 1.5 miles. Bobbi was determined to run and she trained in secret so her parents wouldn’t know since they did not support her. On the day of the Boston Marathon, her father refused to drive her. Her mother dropped her off and she had to sneak in because the marathon officials refused to let her compete. She ended up beating half the men running and went on to run, officially, in the Boston Marathon in 1967 and 1968 where she won the women’s division, and lead the way for women to compete alongside her. [picture book biography, ages 4 and up]
Who She Is by Diane Byington
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Faye’s family has always moved around a lot, and the latest stop is Florida, where her father works in an orange grove. They’ve got a nice house, and Faye even makes a friend at school, even though she usually tries to avoid making any attachments. Francie is one of the few girls in the school who is out on the track running– it’s 1967, and everyone knows that girls can’t run, lest grave physical repercussions occur. Fortunately, this has just been disproven– Kathrine Switzer finished the Boston Marathon earlier in the year, and Francie, whose mother is rather progressive and a teacher at the local high school the girls attend, is determined to register and run the race as well. Francie is slow, but Faye seems to have some talent. The problem is that Faye has suffered from epilepsy for years, and her parents are really reluctant to let her run. She defies them, bringing her to the attention of the local news when she joins the cross country team as the only girl. At first, the coach is okay with her running, but the atmosphere is not conducive to equal opportunity sports quite yet, and Faye experiences a number of setbacks. Not only that, but she has horrible nightmares about car crashes that bring up memories that make her wonder about her parents and her epilepsy. When Francie and Faye decide to travel to Boston to run the marathon, things don’t go smoothly, but Faye does find out more about her family’s past secrets, and new opportunities open for her.” [middle grade, for ages 9 and up]
Finish Strong: Seven Marathons, Seven Continents, Seven Days by Dave McGillivray, Nancy Feehrer, and Hui Li
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads (she also coaches track and field at her school):
Running on Empty by S. E. Durrant is not an #OwnVoices diversity track middle grade book, but it is a sympathetic but unsparing portrait of a child in crisis.
Ms. Yingling Reviews has a great review:
“AJ’s parents have developmental disabilities. His mother works stocking shelves at a grocery store, but his father finds it hard to leave the house and spends most of the time in the garden. His grandfather had lived down the street, and cared for the family, but recently died of a heart attack after running with AJ. AJ’s aunt, Josephine, also lives nearby with his cousin Aisha, but she is expecting a baby and AJ doesn’t want to bother her. Things are not going as smoothly as AJ would like since his grandfather’s death– there isn’t as much food, bills are not paid, and there aren’t coins for the electric meter. Wen AJ goes to try out for the track team, he finds that his running shoes are too small, and he doesn’t want to ask for new ones. Luckily, the coach figures out his plight and lets him have a pair from the lost and found, but when money becomes even tighter, AJ pawns these. His mother will occasionally go to school programs, but AJ is embarrassed by her, and is afraid that if the school finds out his grandfather is not around, he might have to go into foster care. AJ does his best to keep his family together, but eventually must ask for help.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Might Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Maureen Wilton saw her brother come home from school with a ribbon he won in a race and decided that she wanted to win one, too. Eventually, she set a women’s marathon record on May 6, 1967, with a time of 3:15:23. At that point in time, girls and women were not encouraged to run, but Wilton was very fortunate that her parents were supportive and that she found a coach, Sy Mah, who was willing to work with a girls’ running team. Unfortunately, the rest of the world was still not up to speed with women’s running, and the negative reactions eventually got to Wilton, and she dropped out of the sport. Mighty Moe tells the story of Maureen’s fight to be able to race, her training, and the politics with which she had to deal at a very young age in order to pursue something that she loved…
More importantly, Wilton’s fight to keep running, and the toll the negative publicity took on her, are important for young people to understand. It’s one thing to participate in a difficult sport; it’s another to keep working under difficult conditions when people are repeatedly telling you it’s something you CAN’T do! It was fascinating to find out that Kathrine Switzer came to run with Wilton not long after her own fraught marathon run, and that the two connected years later.” [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
The Million Dollar Race by Matthew Ross Smith
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“The best part of this book for me was Grant’s family. Hands down. They were hysterically funny, but also so supportive. The father had an embarrassing deal at the local grocer to buy the expired yogurt, the family didn’t own a car, and while they didn’t really understand Grant’s love of running or his drive to compete, they took him wherever he needed to be and cheered him on. The high stakes international competition will attract a lot of readers who are normally more concerned with other sports. Supporting characters are well developed as well, and Samoan-American Jay is one of the best friends in #MGLit. Franny is an annoying but ultimately helpful younger brother. The twist with the Babblemoney Sneaker corporation took the plot in an unexpected direction but ended up inserting another layer of interest into a solid story about athletic competition. Really well done, engaging, and with amusing lines like “I’ll lie here till the whole human race dies out and the grass pushed up through the track and the squirrels build a new civilization in the ruins.” (Page 2, E ARC.)” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Abby in Between: Ready or Not by Megan Bryant
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Money will be tight, and Abby has been enrolled in an after-school running club. Since she hates to run, she begs to be allowed to go with her father on his part-time, gig economy jobs but is shot down. Running makes her sweat, and she is keenly aware that she now smells. She’s been given deodorant and is also worried about her developing breasts since she had an aunt who had a concern about cancerous lumps. Her mother takes her to the doctor for reassurance. Zoe doesn’t answer her letters, her mother is often busy with work, and she struggles with making friends, although there is one girl in the running club with whom she gets along. After breaking her toe and ending up in a walking boot, Abby is allowed to design the t-shirt for the club’s upcoming 5K race, and she throws herself into fundraising for it, especially since it’s raising money for a tiny house community. When she is able to run, she realizes that it’s not so bad. The book ends on a happy note, with Abby coming to terms with the changes in her life.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up] *This is not an #OwnVoices book but it does have running as a theme.
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“The thing that I liked best about this book detailing the efforts to break this record in the 1950s is that it also talked about the two strongest also-rans, U.S. runner Wes Santee and Australian John Landy. They were both so close, and deserve to be remembered as well… It’s also eye-opening to read about the individuals who were training. Roger Bannister loved running but didn’t really consult too many others on how he should go about it. He was in school to be a doctor and ran experiments on oxygen use in the body while he was preparing for his races, but he was also in school full time and covering shifts in the hospital! Santee had a hard upbringing and was in college as well. He also joined the reserves and ended up not running in several critical races because of that commitment. Landy was studying at the University of Melbourne and trying to decide whether to concentrate on farming or teaching. Keeping connected to the running world was not as easy when technology consisted of radio and telephones!” [young adult, ages 12 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.