Summary: Six Black dancers, three men and three women, are profiled, each one given a few pages describing his or her career and the racism each one encountered and overcame to achieve groundbreaking success. The six are listed in chronological order, beginning with Essie Marie Dorsey, who lived from 1893-1967, and finishing with Michaela DePrince, born in 1995 and currently dancing with the Boston Ballet. The author’s note at the end lists eight other Black ballet dancers, with the years they lived and the companies they danced with. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Dancers will find plenty to inspire them in these stories, timed perfectly to celebrate Black History Month. The illustrations capture the grace, strength, and beauty of the ballerinas.
Cons: I wish there was more historical context for the biographies.
Summary: As the youngest of seven children, Abby Wambach learned to be tough, especially on the soccer field. After a successful high school career that ended with a crushing state championship loss, Abby played at the University of Florida where she was recruited for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. She toughened up even more with a personal trainer to become part of the team that won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. She was on track to win another medal when she broke her leg shortly before the 2008 Olympics, but her encouragement from the sidelines helped her team win gold again. After a year of rehab, she was back, scoring her 100th career goal in 2009. Includes additional information about Abby’s childhood and her post-2009 soccer career, a list of soccer terms with definitions, and a bibliography. 32 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: A lively introduction to Abby Wambach’s life with colorful illustrations and an eye-catching cover that will grab the interest of sports fans.
Cons: I wish there had been some information on Abby’s activism on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community and women in sports.
Summary: Claire is excited about her first skating lesson, but reality rears its ugly head when she’s placed in the beginners’ group called the Snowplows and given brown rental skates. The kids have to practice standing up off the bench before they’re even allowed onto the ice, and once they’re finally there, Claire is surprised at how hard it is to skate and how easy it is to fall. She’s a keen observer, though, and noticing how the teacher pushes and glides across the ice leads to her being the first in the class to do some real skating. Ultimately, Claire is glad to be a Snowplow, because snowplows work hard, and she’s excited for the next class and her dreams of being a real figure skater. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An engaging story that I am going to add to my list of books about persistence and grit, as Claire keeps going through some disappointing turns of events to ultimately find some success. The cute illustrations portray a diverse cast of characters.
Cons: The “hockey boy” in Claire’s class who keeps heckling her when she falls. “Know why you’re called a Snowplow? ‘Cause you clean the ice with your bottom!” Let’s hope Claire checks him in the next class.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Rob Kearney was a strong kid who excelled at football and cheerleading, but his favorite sport was weightlifting. It made him feel like a superhero. At the age of 17, Rob learned about the Strongman competition and decided to become a weightlifting champion. Competition events involved lifting heavy logs, stones, and tires, so Rob got to work, running, swimming, and lifting the heaviest weights he could. Rob loved wearing bright, colorful clothing, but other competitors wore plain, dark colors, so Rob did, too. When he came in last at his first competition, he felt as dark and gloomy as his clothes. Falling in love with Joey, a fellow weightlifter, encouraged Rob to be himself, and before long he was dressing exactly the way he wanted to. Joey’s support and encouragement helped Rob in other ways, and he eventually won the North American Strongman championship. Includes a letter to readers from Rob, additional resources, and descriptions of all the Strongman events. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The empowering be-yourself message will especially speak to LGBQT+ readers, as Rob defies stereotypes with his rainbow mohawk and unconventional clothing in a sport that is often associated with more traditional masculinity. The colorful illustrations bring the weightlifting events to life.
Cons: Although Joey offers to wear the same colorful clothes as Rob, he’s shown on the last page in blue pants and a plain white t-shirt.
Summary: Claire can master any gymnastic skill she puts her mind to, but school is another matter.Reading and writing are just about impossible for her, no matter how hard she tries, and she often acts out due to her frustration. During one of her frequent trips to the vice-principal’s office, she makes a chance remark that leads him to believe that she may have a learning disability. Her mother refuses to believe that anything’s wrong, fearing that a label will limit Claire’s chances for success in school, and it takes a near-crisis to convince her to let Claire get tested. The last few pages see Claire flying through her gymnastics routine with a newfound optimism that things will improve in her academic life as well. 135 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This novel in verse is a quick read that sympathetically portrays a character with dyslexia. It’s written in a font designed for children learning to read. The short length and relatable characters and storyline would make it a great choice for an elementary book club. I’ve added it to my newly-updated list of book club suggestions for grades 2-4.
Summary: Bree’s nervous about her big move with her dad from New York to Florida, but things seem to be going well until she finds out that her sixth-grade elective is Swim 101. Surrounded by kids who have grown up around pools and the ocean, Bree is embarrassed that she doesn’t know how to swim. All that changes one day when she accidentally falls into her apartment complex’s pool and is rescued by her neighbor, Miss Etta. It turns out that Etta was a swimming champion, and she takes Bree under her wing and, step by step, teaches her how to swim. To raise her Swim 101 grade, Bree agrees to try out for the swim team and to everyone’s surprise–including her own–she’s a natural. The girls on the team have their ups and downs as they prepare for the big state championship. When Etta sees their struggles, she decides to reunite with her old swim team, including one woman with whom she hasn’t spoken for decades. The older women coach the girls to a nail-biting but ultimately entirely satisfying state championship win. 256 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Jerry Craft will definitely want to dive into this graphic novel. The excellent art (I especially love the swimming scenes) and compelling story will have them clamoring for a sequel. The difficult history Black people in America have had with swimming and racism is seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative.
Cons: Bree’s journey from non-swimmer to champion seemed a bit unrealistically short.
Summary: Ivan is a skateboard champ whose moves have earned him the nickname Epic from his friends. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he hits the streets with his skateboard, but he misses having friends around to cheer him on. He tries to connect with kids through football, soccer, and basketball, but those sports prove not to be his thing. To cheer him up, his mom gives him money to buy a treat at the bodega. He travels there by skateboard, practicing his tricks as he zooms past groups of kids. They’re impressed, and Epic discovers that being true to his skateboarding self has gotten him a new group of friends. Includes an author’s note (at the beginning of the book) about his own less-than-stellar skateboarding attempts. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The be-yourself message combines lots of skateboarding language and some pretty epic illustrations. Frank Morrison is overdue for a Caldecott, and hopefully that committee and/or Coretta Scott King will consider this book.
Cons: Despite Epic’s expertise, I thought a helmet and some other protective gear would have been a nice addition to the illustrations.
Summary: Yoomi is a dedicated taekwondo student looking forward to earning her yellow belt. On the day of the test, she and the other white belt kids kick and punch with no problem. When it comes to breaking a board, though, Yoomi is afraid of getting hurt and stops just short of the board. Her teacher assures her she can try again, but Yoomi becomes so anxious about not being able to break the board that she stops going to class. Her grandmother doesn’t try to force her to go but tells Yoomi that she is going to stop trying to learn how to use the computer to call her sister in Korea. Yoomi encourages her to keep trying, and eventually Grandma succeeds. Yoomi gets the point and returns to class the next day, where she finally breaks the board and gets her yellow belt. Includes additional information about taekwondo. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This story of persistence is populated with adorable animals. Grandma wisely shows rather than tells, and Yoomi shows courage in continuing to try something that is difficult for her.
Cons: Master Cho is a scarily large rabbit…approximately the same size as one of the adult judges, a tiger, yet the mouse adult judge fits into the palm of the tiger’s hand (paw).
Summary: A girl tells the story of Gravity, a mysterious kid who shows up at the local playground basketball court and soon becomes a legend. His real name is never told, but the other kids give him the nickname Gravity since he seems to defy it. Soon Gravity has turned the team into champions, and they’re excited to go to the Best of the Best, Milwaukee’s pickup basketball tournament. They easily defeat one team after the other until they face perennial champions the Flyers. Gravity does his best, but by halftime, he’s exhausted. He tells the rest of the team how they can work together to win, and each one uses their unique talents to defeat the Flyers by 17 points. Gravity insists that they share the trophy, and “twenty-five years later, we still do.” Includes an author’s note celebrating championship basketball players who never made it into the NBA. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: If stories about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are feeling a little tired, here’s a new tall tale that kids will love, with colorful illustrations and plenty of basketball action.
Cons: The somewhat abstract paintings made it occasionally difficult to distinguish one player from another.
Summary: This short chapter book is part of the series inspired by Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted books. Persistence is definitely a theme, as the story follows Florence from her childhood, growing up in a large family to college, to her struggles to pay her way through college, to her determination to become the world’s fastest woman. Despite challenges and setbacks, she finally emerged victorious in the 1988 Summer Olympics, where she won three gold medals and one silver. She was also well-known for her distinctive fashion designs that she wore on the track. Sadly, the book ends with Flo-Jo’s death in 1998 at the age of 38 from an epileptic seizure in her sleep. Includes a list of 8 ways you can persist and references. 80 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Normally, I’m not a fan of celebrity-authored children’s literature, so I’ve pretty much steered clear of Chelsea Clinton’s books. But when I saw the award-winning authors writing these biographies, I finally broke down and read one. It’s very well done, with plenty of information for both research and inspiration. The length and illustrations make it an accessible choice for younger elementary kids, and I plan to add many of these books to my library.
Cons: I’m not sure I knew about Florence Griffith Joyner’s death, but if I did I had forgotten and was shocked when I got to that part of the book.