Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Lewis Tewanima Born to Run #nfpb2015 4/15/15

nonfiction picture book challenge 2015

My favorite reading challenge is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit her blog to discover more wonderful nonfiction picture book titles.

lewis tewanima

In Lewis Tewanima: Born to Run, author Sharon Solomon shares the story of Lewis Tewanima, a Native American runner who won a silver medal in the 1912 Olympics, setting a U.S. record that wasn’t broken until 1964. Tewanima was a member of the Hopi tribe in Arizona. He had always been an impressive long-distance runner but it wasn’t until he was forcibly removed from his home and sent to boarding school (an episode that Solomon handles particularly well, clearly conveying the terror and abuse that Native Americans experienced in language that even young readers can understand) that people outside his tribe recognized his abilities. At Carlisle Indian School, Jim Thorpe was one of his classmates, and Pop Warner was his coach. Warner first thought the tiny Tewanima wouldn’t be a good athlete, but Lewis insisted that Hopis were excellent runners and once he was outfitted with shoes and a tracksuit, he began winning distance races.

We learn very little about Tewanima’s personality in this book, and very little about his life aside from his experiences at Carlisle and the Olympics. What is covered in perhaps most depth is the aftermath of the Olympics–meeting kings and presidents, having parades held in his honor. Whatever Tewanima might have thought or felt about all of it remains a mystery. Shortly after the 1912 Olympics, he returned to his village in Arizona and rarely left, though he must have continued running and racing. The timeline at the end of the book notes that he won a race in New Orleans in 1920. He died in 1969.

I did have an issue with some of the stereotypes in this book. I wish more effort had been made to bring Tewanima to life as a well-rounded individual. All too often, Solomon seems to rely on stereotypical thinking about Native American experiences to do the work of creating a character and a narrative arc. Tewanima’s life on the mesa is romanticized as a life lived in “peaceful, perfect balance.” In fact, Solomon uses this phrase–“perfect balance”–twice in the first few pages of the book to characterize the experiences of members of the Hopi tribe. There are no words or images that connect him to other members of his tribe or community in these early pages: he is depicted running alone on the mesa, hunting animals, and communing with nature. Life as a farmer and shepherd seems unusually solitary and static.

Away from the mesa, he is depicted as the stereotypical laconic, stoic Native American. Coach Warner’s report of Tewanima’s words to him seemed especially problematic to me. Perhaps Tewanima did say “All Hopis run fast good. Me run fast good.” After all, he was an English language learner. But the effect of those words without an explanation that he spoke another language fluently creates an image of Tewanima as simple and simplistic. In his native language, he was no doubt capable of expressing himself with sophistication and eloquence.

He clearly had a sense of humor. When he visited New York City in 1954 to receive an award, he climbed the Statue of Liberty, looked around, and commented, “Not enough land for sheep.” I would have liked to know more about this Tewanima.







5 responses to “Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Lewis Tewanima Born to Run #nfpb2015 4/15/15”

  1. Earl @ The Chronicles Of A Children's Book Writer Avatar

    Ooh! I haven’t heard of this book or of him. Hopefully there are other books that tell his life better.

  2. Linda Baie Avatar

    I looked Tewanima up & there is some information online, an annual race in his name hosted by the Hopi Athletic Assn. I love these stories of people who were never written about in our own history books, just read The Boys In The Boat earlier & loved it. Thanks for this review, Elisabeth!

  3. Michele Avatar

    Shoot, when you first started describing the book, I was thinking this would be a good book for showing diversity. But without the information…

  4. alybee930 Avatar

    Wow! This sounded so promising but sad when a book features a character of diversity in a flat, stereotypic manner. I am still interested in learning more about Tewanima.

  5. […] review of a picture book biography of Olympic runner Lewis […]

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