Strong by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani

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.

Flipping Forward Twisting Backward by Alma Fullerton

Published by Peachtree

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.

Cons:  The ending felt a bit rushed.

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Published by HarperAlley

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.

Kick Push by Frank Morrison

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

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.

Let’s Go to Taekwondo! A Story About Persistence, Bravery, and Breaking Boards by Aram Kim

Published by Holiday House

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). 

The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale by Charly Palmer

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale: Palmer, Charly, Palmer,  Charly: 9780374313289: Books
The Legend of Gravity

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.

Florence Griffith Joyner (She Persisted series) by Rita Williams-Garcia, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

Published by Philomel Books

She Persisted: Florence Griffith Joyner by Rita Williams-Garcia, Chelsea  Clinton: 9780593115954 | Books

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.

The Fastest Girl on Earth: Meet Kitty O’Neil, Daredevil Driver! By Dean Robbins, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

The Fastest Girl on Earth!: Meet Kitty O'Neil, Daredevil Driver!: Robbins,  Dean, Baddeley, Elizabeth: 9780593125717: Books
The Fastest Girl on Earth!: Meet Kitty O'Neil, Daredevil Driver!: Robbins,  Dean, Baddeley, Elizabeth: 9780593125717: Books

Summary:  Kitty O’Neil may have lost her hearing as a baby, but she never let it stop her from doing the most daring deeds she could find.  From movie stunts to speed records for water skiing and boat racing, Kitty embraced any challenge.  Her biggest goal was to break the women’s land-speed record of 308 miles per hour in the Motivator, her rocket-powered car.  On December 6, 1976, Kitty drove across the Oregon desert, reaching a speed of 618 miles per hour.  Her fans cheered wildly: “Kitty could not hear their cheering, but she could feel it in her bones.”  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Kitty and her car; a list of her world records; and additional resources.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Focusing mostly on Kitty’s record-breaking drive, the story is exciting and incorporates facts about her early life.  The author’s note provides additional context.  This belongs on any list of books featuring people with disabilities.

Cons:  It seems unfair that Kitty had to average two drives for the world record, so the official speed is 512 mph.

Lucas Makes a Comeback and Lucas at the Paralympics by Igor Plohl, illustrated by Urška Stropnik Šonc

Published by Holiday House

Lucas Makes a Comeback by Igor Plohl: 9780823447664 | Books
Lucas at the Paralympics by Igor Plohl: 9780823447657 | Books

Summary: Slovenian author Igor Plohl has drawn on his own experiences to create Lucas, a lion who loses the use of his legs after falling off a ladder and injuring his spine. Lucas goes through a period of sadness, feeling like he has lost his independence and ability to work. With the help of therapists, friends, and family, he learns how to use a wheelchair and drive a car, gets his own apartment, and returns to his job as a teacher. Photos on the endpapers show Igor doing many of the activities that are described in the story.

In Lucas At the Paralympics, Lucas meets a fellow cyclist named Eddie, and the two of them decide to travel to the Summer Paralympic Games. Sidebars give additional information about the different competitions they attend. At the end, Lucas decides to train for the Paralympic Games in four years. Includes two pages of information about different events at the Winter Paralympic Games. Both books are 32 pages and recommended for ages 4-8.

Pros: Some much-needed picture books featuring a character with a disability. Readers will learn about some of the challenges faced by a person in a wheelchair, as well opportunities to compete in sports that are open to those with many different types of disabilities.. The book about the Paralympic Games is timely, since the 2021 Games take place at the end of the summer.

Cons: Given the restrictions of a picture book, Lucas’s journey to independence appears deceptively simple. Also, the photos of the author were on the endpapers, which meant some of them were covered up by the library dust jacket.

The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field by Scott Riley, illustrated by Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien

Published by Millbrook Press

The Floating Field - By Scott Riley (hardcover) : Target
The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field  Book Review |

Summary:  Prasit Nemmin and his friends could only play soccer a couple of times a month, since the sandbar they played on in their island village of Koh Panyee, Thailand was underwater the rest of the time.  Watching the World Cup on TV made them want to play every day, inspiring their plan to build a floating field.  Using cast-off wood and old barrels, they were able to build a platform that could stay afloat on top of buoys.  They practiced just about every day, and their persistence paid off with a third-place win at a local tournament.  Includes a two-page author’s note with photos and maps, and a note from Prasit about how and why he and his friends built the field back in 1986.  His love of soccer endures, and his son has played on the national champion Panyee Football Club.  Also includes some soccer words in Thai and a bibliography.  40 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  A great read for soccer fans and anyone who enjoys a good underdog story, with an emphasis on the importance of teamwork and persistence.  The back matter adds extra dimensions to the story.

Cons:  It looked like a huge nuisance to have to go into the water any time the ball went out of bounds.