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.