Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransom, illustrated by James E. Ransome and Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams

Game Changers published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Sisters and Champions published by Philomel Books

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Summary:  When I went to write a review about Game Changers, I discovered Sisters and Champions, another 2018 book about Venus and Serena Williams.  Both are picture book biographies that emphasize the girls’ unlikely background, growing up in Compton, a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.  Richard Williams, their father, is introduced in both books as their coach who never wavered from his belief that they could become professional tennis stars.  Venus’s rise to success and fame, followed shortly by Serena’s is documented in the books, as well as the fact that the sisters often played each other for the championship at many professional matches.  Cline-Ransome’s book talks a bit more about the racism the two of them encountered as they moved up the ranks in what had traditionally been an almost all-white sport. Her story ends with Venus taking pictures of Serena after Serena had beat her for the first time at the French Open.  Bryant’s goes a bit further, touching on illness and injuries that both women have had to overcome. Game Changers includes an afterword, source notes, a selected bibliography, and a list for further reading; no back matter in Sisters and Champions.  48 pages (Game Changers) and 32 pages (Sisters & Champions); grades 1-4 for both.

Pros:  I’m happy to see two excellent books on the Williams sisters by acclaimed authors and illustrators; Serena and Venus are a frequent topic of research in my third grade libraries.  Both books are well done, but if I had to pick one, it would be Game Changers.  I preferred the sharp, action-packed cut-paper illustrations to Cooper’s pastels, and the back matter makes it a better choice for research.

Cons:  There were some inconsistencies between the two. Cline-Ransome: “Venus won every single one of her sixty-three junior tournaments by age ten.”  Bryant: “Their father wouldn’t let his girls play junior tournaments even though everyone played juniors.”  Also, no photos in either book.

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Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army by Art Coulson, illustrated by Nick Hardcastle

Published by Capstone

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Summary:  The big game against Army is the climax of this book, but there’s a long story to be told before that.  Jim Thorpe, like so many other Indian children, was sent to boarding school, where he was forced to have his hair cut, wear school-issued clothing, and stop speaking his native language.  After running away from a school in Kansas, his father sent him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He excelled at all sports there, becoming a football and track star and winning a couple of gold medals at the 1912 Olympics.  Later that year, Thorpe and the Carlisle team traveled to West Point to play against a team that included Dwight Eisenhower and three other future generals. The symbolism of the future Army soldiers versus the Indians was not lost on anyone as the Carlisle team played a new kind of football created by coach Pop Warner and won the game 27-6.  Includes additional information on Jim Thorpe, other members of the Carlisle team, Pop Warner, and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, as well as a glossary and a list of additional information sources. 40 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  So many people (including me) know Jim Thorpe mainly as the guy who lost his Olympic medals for playing semi-professional baseball, but there is so much more to his story.  This is a good introduction to Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pop Warner, and the early days of football.

Cons:  Due to the picture book format, a lot of the more interesting (and in some cases, horrifying) details are omitted.  For a more comprehensive picture, read Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.

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Lu by Jason Reynolds

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  In the final book of the Track series, we hear from Lu, the team co-captain.  Lu’s parents’ announcement that he will soon have a little sister is his catalyst for some serious soul-searching.  Born with albinism, he’s sometimes been the victim of teasing about his white skin and the thick glasses he used to wear before he got contacts.  But track has given him confidence, and he’s usually the first to cross the finish line. A new event, hurdles, is giving him some challenges, but he’s determined to overcome them.  Lu learns some unpleasant truths about his father, a former drug dealer who now works for a rehab center, and his coach. The two men grew up together, almost like brothers, but a tragedy pulled them apart, and Lu is determined to bring about a reconciliation before his sister is born.  Each chapter is entitled “A New Name for…” (“A New Name for Little Brother: Little Sister”), and the final chapter: “A New Name for the Defenders: Family” shows all the ways this amazing group of kids have grown and come together over the season (and the series). 224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I don’t usually review sequels, let alone an entire series, but I have loved these books so much that I had to read them all.  Lu was every bit as good as the rest; Ghost will always be my favorite, but this one is not far behind.

Cons:  I will miss the Defenders.

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Game Changer by Tommy Greenwald

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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Summary:  Teddy Youngblood is in a coma, hospitalized after a head injury during football practice.  A rising freshman, he was attending a summer camp for the championship Walthorne High School team.  Told entirely in texts, newspaper stories, and transcripts of (one-sided) conversations from visiting family and friends, the narrative gradually reveals that there was more to Teddy’s injury than just an unfortunate accident.  Older players are trying to hush up what happened that day, and younger players, wracked with guilt, are trying to decide whether or not to tell the truth to their parents and friends. As the details slowly come to light, readers will have to decide what the difference is between right and wrong, and whether turning a blind eye to bullying can be just as dangerous as participating in it.  304 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  Tommy Greenwald turns to more serious topics than those covered in his Charlie Joe Jackson series, but this book will appeal to the same reluctant readers.  The format makes it a fast read, while the slow revelation of what happened to Teddy makes a gripping story right up until the end.

Cons:  The characters seemed like they were beginning to ramble on the last 30 pages or so… they could have been edited down a bit.

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Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers’ Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary: In 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing hijab, and she and her teammates won the bronze in the team saber fencing competition. She tells her story here, starting as a young child growing up in a close-knit family in New Jersey. She and her siblings were always active in sports, and fencing appealed to her and her parents because she could compete without having to alter her team uniform. She was part of a championship high school team, then went on to fence for Duke. Ibtihaj struggled as one of the few African Americans in a traditionally white sport, and found herself often having to explain her faith and decision to wear hijab. She assumed she was done with fencing after college, but when she struggled to break into corporate America, she found herself back at her old gym, where her coach encouraged her to reach for her Olympic dream. At the same time, Ibtihaj founded Louella, an online company selling fashionable clothing for Muslim women. As she pursued her dreams, Ibtihaj often found herself serving as a role model for her faith community; the book ends with the Olympics, but an epilogue tells of her post-Games activities, including more fencing, activism, and continuing with her business. Includes a fencing glossary, Ibtihaj’s advice, and a few questions and answers for her. 304 pages; grades 5-12.

Pros: Any reader with a dream will find encouragement and inspiration in Ibtihaj Muhammad’s story. She has learned to proudly be herself and in the process realize her goals through incredibly hard work and determination.

Cons: Although there were eight pages of color photos, I could have enjoyed seeing even more.

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Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  Sunny’s the fastest miler on the Defenders track team, and easily takes first place at most of their meets. But he’s struggling with his reasons for running, and one day he comes to a halt before the finish line and refuses to finish his race.  Turns out his mom was a runner; when she died giving birth, his dad decided it was up to Sunny to carry on her legacy. Writing in his diary, Sunny tries to figure out his dad, his homeschool tutor Aurelia, his Defenders teammates, and himself. What Sunny really loves is dancing.  When he shows the coach some of his moves, Coach sees the beginnings of a champion discus thrower, and Sunny moves into a new role in the team. Book 4 in this series, Lu (the final installment) is due out in October.  176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Another excellent entry into Jason Reynolds’ Track series that includes Ghost and Patina.  You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the humorous narration, interesting characters, and emotional impact of all three of these books.  Can’t wait for the thrilling conclusion!

Cons:  I don’t know if it was the diary format or the slightly shorter length, but I just wasn’t quite as invested in Sunny as I was in Patina and (still my favorite) Ghost.

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Unsinkable: From Russian Orphan to Paralympic Swimming World Champion by Jessica Long with Hannah Long

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Jessica Long started life in Siberia as Tatiana Kirillova; she was adopted by the Long family at the age of 13 months.  Born without fibular bones, Jessica underwent surgery shortly after arriving in the U.S. to remove both legs below the knee.  She learned to walk with prosthetics, and soon became active in a variety of sports. Swimming eventually won out over the others, and Jessica began competing as a Paralympian.  She has participated in Paralympic events in Athens, Beijing, London, and Rio de Janeiro, winning 23 medals to make her the second-most decorated Paralympian of all times. She tells her story as a series of life-changing moments (“The moment I won my first gold”, “The moment I lost my confidence”, etc.), that cover the highs and lows of her life and athletic career.  Jessica has enjoyed working as a model, and the text is illustrated with many photos of her, her family, and her friends. Looking at her Facebook page, it seems as though she is making plans to compete in Tokyo in 2020. 112 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Jessica tells her story in a chatty, upbeat style that, along with the many photos, will appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers.  Even her struggles with anxiety, OCD, and bulimia are covered with a pretty positive spin.

Cons:  The format of life-changing moments, which were not in exact chronological order, made the story seem a little disjointed. Also, not a con, but a heads-up that Jessica and her family are devout Christians, which is sometimes mentioned in the story, particularly “The moment I found peace”.

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