The 1942 Wisconsin Badgers football team had a host of individual stars, including two-time All-American end Dave Schreiner, fullback Pat Harder, and halfback Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. Their coach was the stubborn and respected Harry Stuhldreher, best known as the one-time quarterback of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen. In the final-fling atmosphere typical on college campuses as the first year of U.S. involvement in World War II was winding down, the Badgers climbed their way up the rankings and ultimately became one of the greatest college football teams of all time.Stars and benchwarmers alike knew that each game brought them closer to military service. The Badgers scattered into the various branches-and around the world-shortly after the season. Not all were asked to be heroic in battle, but many were, and they answered the challenge. Not all of them returned, and the circumstances of at least one battle death have been shrouded in mystery for six decades.
It has been a fantastic year for school aged kids who like sports books! As I have spoken before, there is an important trend of authors developing young adult versions of nonfiction sports stories. These authors are tackling tough social issues through the lens of sports history, giving younger audiences who may struggle with such adult concepts a story on their own level.
In December, Andrew Maraniss completed a young reader edition of Strong Inside, the biography of Perry Wallace who was the first black player to compete in the highly segregated SEC. This past winter, author Steve Sheinkin published a fantastic book called Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Sheinkin has written numerous books highlighting important historical events with a knack for unfolding them in an appealing manner for young readers (which is no small task). Undefeated looks to be his first truly tied to sports. Like Maraniss, Sheinkin is masterfully nudging kids to become socially conscious citizens through these emotional and gripping stories.
While Undefeated is a fascinating look at Jim Thorpe as a person and athlete, it's an eye opening look at how Native Americans were treated in the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The book is almost like studying 3 distinct facets of history that merge at one time. First, there is a look into the Carlisle School itself and how this educational system was formed in order to impose white values on the Native American kids, essentially erasing them of their culture. Next, the book is a neat history of the game of football. I think kids will be fascinated to read about the extremely violent origins of the game and how it was nearly banished because of life threatening and sometimes fatal injuries obtained in matches. Development of wrinkles like the forward pass and misdirection plays are all part of this radical era that matured the game from the brutal thugfest it was at that time.
Finally, main characters like Jim Thorpe and Pop Warner star in their own biographies, proving they are great models for the budding athlete. Thorpe's toughness and will to succeed are the star of Undefeated, and Pop Warner's innovative game management and motivational ability color him as just the right man to work with the young Indians who were willing to go to any length to play the game they loved.
The title may be a little deceiving as the book itself is not primarily about one season. The arc of time will take the reader through the start of Carlisle School and the youth of Thorpe and Warner, unifying them through the bond of Carlisle football and their quest for greatness in the sport. Like most titles in this new "young reader" category, the book is cleverly constructed with historical visuals to guide the way and manageable 5-7 page chapters that move the story along without becoming too weighty for a young reader. Still , the book feels nicely adultish, and I would challenge any adult to pick up the book and not become quickly engrossed in it!
Like Strong Inside, this book will succeed in any library from elementary on up. Not only will the reader who is looking for sports action love the book, but educators, parents, and librarians will value Undefeated for it's call to social consciousness in young adults, and the great example it sets of athletes who made their mark not only in sports, but in the world as well.
In honor of international women's day, I posted a stat this week on my twitter account about nonfiction sports titles and females. Consider this: In my high school library, only 9 percent of nonfiction sports titles are checked out to females. Also consider: Of the nonfiction sports titles I have, only 8 percent feature females as the main subject. How pathetic.
Why is this happening, and is anyone at fault? Like anything else, the answer is complicated. No, librarians are not ignoring girls when it comes to sports--nor are girls ignoring sports when it comes to books. I have a strong hunch that content, or lack of content, is driving this statistic. I could really talk at length about this, but I will leave it here with a simple point: We need more nonfiction books that focus on some of the great female athletes we have seen throughout history and those who are paving the way for female sports today.
With that thought, I want to highlight a new book that has most of the qualities that will win over new young females interested in reading about sports. If you remember Simone Biles, the stunning US gymnast who stole our hearts during the 2016 Rio games with that infectious smile and flawless talent, you'll want to consider her new book, Courage to Soar. With help from award winning author, Michelle Burford, Biles crafts her inspiring life story with the simplicity and grace of one of her fabulous floor routines!
Biles is s strong female role model who has succeeded in her sport. Her book, however, is not a resume of accomplishments nor does it attempt to exist as a self serving "look what I have done" expose that some athletes fall into with biographies. Courage to Soar is more of a manual on how to achieve dreams and life goals. For Biles, sport is the prop, life is the goal. It's the way things should be. Biles shows an amazing maturity for her youthful age, and tumbles through the numerous life lessons she has learned along the way to stardom.
Put out through a christian values press in Vondervan Publishing, Biles makes no bones about her faith playing a huge part in her life. Good for her. It goes nicely along with the current trend of athletes who are not afraid to credit God as the originator of all success. While some of these displays tend to be showy, Biles faith comes across as genuine and sincere.
I read a review about Courage To Soar that concluded it was a great title for young gymnasts. No--it's a good title for ANYONE. You don't need to be a gymnast to get something from this story. If you only see the sport itself, you are missing the bigger picture. Perhaps this is part of the bigger problem. Girls are being told that they can only engage and enjoy a book if it fits their bill. Really? Does one have to be a meth user to appreciate the struggles that a narrator elaborates on in a memoir about drug addiction?
Let's steer all females to a book like Courage To Soar. Couage, faith, values, and life balance are lessons for everyone, not just athletes...and not just guys. Let's allow more female athletes like Biles to work their magic on school aged kids by putting these books on our shelves.