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 Diversity Books for Kids
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 polio virus) 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]
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]
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
Running on Empty by S. E. Durrant is not an #OwnVoices diversity track middle grade book, but it is a sympathetic but unsparingly 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]
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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.