This week, my son and I read two picture book sports biographies.
Don Brown’s Bright Path tells the story of how Jim Thorpe discovered his athletic gifts and became an Olympic gold medalist in track and field (and later a professional baseball, football, AND basketball player!). Thorpe, a Native American from Oklahoma, didn’t have the easiest childhood, especially after his parents began sending him to Indian boarding schools where he was forced to cut his hair and forbidden to speak his language. Thorpe ran away multiple times but eventually found a place for himself at Carlisle in Pennsylvania. There, his coach, Pop Warner, encouraged him to participate in several sports, and the Carlisle teams went on to beat some of the best college teams in the nation. Brown’s book concludes with Thorpe’s incredible achievements at the 1928 Olympics, where he set a world record that lasted for sixteen years.
Brown does an excellent job keeping his audience in mind and telling a complex story with clarity and coherence. He also addresses racism in ways that will make sense to young readers. There is a detailed Author’s Note at the back with a full biography of Thorpe and photographs as well as a Bibliographic Note.
Major Taylor Champion Cyclist, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome, is the story of Marshall Taylor, an African-American who became the world cycling champion in 1903. This book is a good example of the kinds of important stories that need to be told about the achievements and accomplishments of African-Americans. James Ransome’s paintings are incredibly beautiful: the book is worth looking at for his art alone. The early part of the story, which focuses on Taylor’s discovery by the proprietors of an Indianapolis bicycle shop and his early race history, is well-written and engaging, but Cline-Ransome tries to cover too much ground and the chronology of events often becomes confusing, especially towards the end of the story when Taylor is in Europe competing with the French champion. The book could have used some editing: Taylor is variously referred to by his first name, nickname, last name, AND full name, which was very confusing to my son as I read aloud. Although I didn’t love the writing, this book did pass our nonfiction picture book test: my son wanted to get on the iPad after we finished reading so that he could learn more about Taylor. There is a brief note at the end of the book that details Taylor’s professional career and retirement.