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Sports and social justice intersect in this inspiring list of biographies and history books.
While athletes regularly demonstrate their abilities across stadiums, fields, courts, and other sporting venues, many have also taken advantage of the spotlight and used their talents, voices, and actions to break racial, ethnic, and gender barriers, promote social justice, and advocate for accessibility for future generations. The titles below feature athletes notable for both their physical achievements and their personal activism.
42 Is Not Just a Number: The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson, American Hero. By Doreen Rappaport. 2017. 128p. Candlewick (9780763676247). Gr. 5–7. 796.357.The racial injustices Jackie Robinson endured as a child, in the army, and as a player in Negro League baseball were nothing compared to what he experienced when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. This well-researched, concise biography shows the burdens he carried and recognizes his significance as a “one-person civil rights movement.” See also Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s The United States v. Jackie Robinson (2018).
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball. By Jen Bryant. Illus. by Frank Morrison. 2020. 40p. Abrams (9781419741081). Gr. 2–5. 796.323092.Elongated oil paintings illustrate Elgin Baylor’s basketball career as a Black man during segregation and his rise to a professional player in the early days of the NBA. The focus, however, is on his boycott in West Virginia, where he sat out a game. His activism led the NBA to make a new rule: no team would stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant that practiced discrimination.
Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl. By Megan Reid. Illus. by Laura Freeman. 2020. 40p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062851093). Gr. 1–3. 796.432.Expressive illustrations first depict Althea Gibson’s sure, quick skills in many sports on the streets of Harlem—except tennis. The picture-book biography then focuses on Gibson’s entrée into tennis during segregation, rise through Black leagues, and subsequent breaking of the color barrier to become the first Black person—of any gender—to win Wimbledon. See also Playing to Win (2007), by Karen Deans.
Aly Raisman: Athlete and Activist. By Anna Leigh. 2019. 48p. Lerner (9781541542617). Gr. 5–8. 794.44.This biography of Raisman, part of the Gateway Biographies series, begins with the dedicated career path of this two-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics. The latter portion of the book addresses the sexual abuse she experienced by the USA Gymnastics national-team doctor and her new commitment to body-positivity projects and partnering with organizations that advocate the end of child sexual abuse.
Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball. By Heather Lang. Illus. by Cecilia Puglesi. 2018. 32p. Albert Whitman (9780807503799). PreS–Gr. 3. 796.357092.Accompanied by expressive, kid-friendly illustrations, this picture-book biography describes how, in 1950, Kathryn Johnston dressed like a boy to try out for and become the first girl to play on a Little League baseball team. An author’s note provides photos of the real Kathryn at the time and explains that the rules of Little League baseball changed in 1951, not allowing girls to play again until 1974.
Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City. By Phillip Hoose. 2018. 224p. Farrar (9780374306120). Gr. 9–12. 796.323.Hoose offers a readable account of the success of Indiana’s Crispus Attucks High School, a Black school built at the instigation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which drove integration in the 1950s through its basketball program. Accompanied by period photos and newspaper reports, the text describes how the varsity players, including NBA basketball great Oscar Robertson, became activists for social justice.
Bartali’s Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy’s Secret Hero. By Megan Hoyt. Illus. by Iacopo Bruno. 2021. 40p. Harper/Quill Tree (9780062908117). Gr. 1–4. 796.6.After Italian cyclist Gino Bartali won the Tour de France, Nazis invaded Italy. This attractive picture-book biography recounts how Bartali, known for his training rides around Florence’s countryside, became a courier for the Resistance, delivering safe-passage documents. He also sheltered a Jewish family and used his fame to whip up rowdy crowds and distract German soldiers during Resistance movements.
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court. By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. 2017. 304p. Little, Brown (9780316555388). Gr. 9–12. 796.323092.Born Lewis Alcindor in New York City, Abdul-Jabbar focuses on his childhood and young adulthood in this powerful exposition of what it means to be Black in America and the de facto history of the civil rights movement. Rather than a sports story, his autobiography is a celebration of education and the teachers who helped him become Kareem, a famous basketball player and activist.
Becoming Muhammad Ali. By James Patterson and Kwame Alexander. Illus. by Dawud Anyabwile. 2020. 320p. Little, Brown/JIMMY Patterson (9780316498166). Gr. 3–7.This fictionalized biography chronicles teenage Cassius Clay’s rise to fame in 10 chapter “rounds.” Blending prose, free verse, and comic-book style illustrations, the rounds relate Clay’s working-class neighborhood, relationships, entry into boxing, burgeoning views on racism, and more. The “Final Round” looks at Ali’s professional career as heavyweight champion and his guiding beliefs on injustice. See also Walter Dean Myers’ The Greatest: Muhammad Ali (2001) and Charles R. Smith Jr.’s Twelve Rounds to Glory (2007).
Billie Jean! How Tennis Star Billie Jean King Changed Women’s Sports. By Mara Rockliff. Illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley. 2019. 40p. Putnam (9780525517795). K–Gr. 3. 796.342092.Following a look at King’s childhood start in tennis and her early successes, this picture-book biography concentrates on the gender inequities the female tennis pro encountered in the era before Title IX. Filled with colorful, action-packed illustrations, it highlights her advocacy to gain equity for women athletes, culminating in her now legendary “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs. For older readers, there’s Billie Jean King (2011), by Marty Gitlin.
Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring Twenties. By Sue Macy. 2020. 96p. National Geographic (9781426336768). Gr. 5–8. 796.Calling the 1920s “the first golden age of sports,” Macy discusses women’s athletics during the decade, which opened with the Nineteenth Amendment ensuring white women’s voting rights, ushering in changes in women’s sports along the way. Complemented by numerous period photos, the text describes how women athletes became activists and broke barriers, along with historical context.
Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf. By Nancy Churnin. Illus. by John Joven. 2018. 32p. Albert Whitman (9780807511282). Gr. 1–3. 796.Inspired by and with encouragement from Jackie Robinson, Charlie Luther Sifford hoped to break the color barrier in golf. Colorful digital artwork depicts Sifford from his caddy days on all-white golf courses to his fight against the PGA’s “Caucasian-only” clause to his PGA tournament win in 1967, the first by an African American. An author’s note fills in more details about Sifford’s golf career.
Colin Kaepernick: Athletes Who Made a Difference. By Blake Hoena. Illus. by Sam LeDoyen. 2020. Graphic Universe (9781728402932). Gr. 3–6. 796.332092.With reluctant readers in mind, this easy-to-read biography in a graphic-novel format offers a brief look at Kaepernick’s childhood in an adopted family, his early success in sports, and his rise to the NFL. Part of the Athletes Who Made a Difference series, the book also focuses on how Kaepernick’s controversial decision to take a knee led to a movement and inspired his activism off the field. The series also includes Jackie Robinson (2020), Jesse Owens (2020), and Serena Williams (2020).
Evonne Goolagong. By Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara. Illus. by Lisa Koesterke. 2020. 32p. Quarto/Frances Lincoln (9780711245860). K–Gr. 3. 796.342.Simple text and patterned, geometric illustrations combine in this Little People, Big Dreams biography to tell the story of Indigenous Australian tennis player Evonne Goolagong. After achieving her dream of winning Wimbledon (twice!) and retiring, she supports the education and tennis training of Indigenous children. More athlete activists in the series: Billie Jean King (2020), Jesse Owens (2020), Megan Rapinoe (2021), and Muhammad Ali (2019).
Follow Chester! A College Football Team Fights Racism and Makes History. By Gloria Respress-Churchwell. Illus. by Laura Freeman. 2019. 32p. Charlesbridge (9781580898355). Gr. 1–3. 796.332092.Chester Pierce was a Black football player at Harvard University in 1947. When Harvard was scheduled to play the University of Virginia in a state where Jim Crow laws dominated, the team agreed on a strategy they called “Follow Chester.” This richly colored picture book depicts how the team refused whites-only traditions and made history on and off the field by resisting injustice together.
Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game. By John Coy. Illus. by Randy DuBurke. 2015. 32p. Carolrhoda (9781467726047). Gr. 2–4. 796.32307.Coach John McLendon of the North Carolina College of Negroes “believed basketball could change people’s prejudices.” Accompanied by photolike illustrations, the book reveals when he invited players from Duke University Medical School, an all-white team, to play a “secret game.” In 1944, when the Ku Klux Klan deemed “race mixing” in the state punishable by death, the game advanced race relations.
Game, Set, Match, Champion Arthur Ashe. By Crystal Hubbard. Illus. by Kevin Belford. 2010. 48p. Lee & Low (9781600603662). Gr. 4–7. 796.342092.Enhanced by impressionistic yet emotive and action-packed illustrations, this picture-book biography recounts Arthur Ashe’s rise in tennis in the segregated South to become the first Black man to win Wimbledon. It also notes Ashe’s activism to end racism and apartheid, as well as to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS, which claimed his life after a blood transfusion. The author’s The Story of Tennis Champion Arthur Ashe (2018) offers more details in an extended early-reader format.
A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player. By Michelle Lord. Illus. by Shehzil Malik. 2019. 48p. Sterling (9781454931362). K–Gr. 3. 796.343.As a girl growing up in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Maria Toorpakai Wazir was, by virtue of her gender, prohibited from playing sports. To play outside and gain access to freedom, she dressed up as a boy, earning the nickname Genghis Khan. Illustrated in bold colors, this picture-book biography follows her rise as a squash champion, even as the Taliban threatened the lives of her and her family.
The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon. By Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee. Illus. by Susanna Chapman. 2017. 48p. Compendium (9781943200474). PreS–Gr. 3. 796.After watching the Boston Marathon, Bobbi Gibb knew she had to be part of it and secretly began running. Illustrated with loose watercolors that accentuate Gibbs’ movement, this picture-book biography traces how Gibbs, denied admission to the 1966 marathon because of her gender, hid behind bushes, joined the registered runners, and changed minds about female runners after completing the race. See also Annette Bay Pimentel’s Girl Running (2018).
Girls with Guts! The Road to Breaking Barriers and Bashing Records. By Debbie Gonzales. Illus. by Rebecca Gibbon. 2019. 32p. Charlesbridge (9781580897471). Gr. 1–3. 796.082.This informational picture book first introduces a series of female athletes, from Sendra Berenson Abbott (who adapted basketball for girls in 1892) to Althea Gibson (who became the first athlete of color to win a Grand Slam tennis title in 1956), who confronted and broke gender barriers in sports. The second part recounts politicians who challenged athletic injustice and helped establish Title IX.
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon. By Kim Chaffee. Illus. by Ellen Rooney. 2019. 40p. Page Street (9781624146541). Gr. 2–4. 796.42092.Kathrine Switzer ran with her university’s running team but was never allowed to compete with the men. Not deterred by her gender, Switzer registered for the 1967 Boston Marathon using her initials. In this picture-book biography, expressive illustrations reveal the drama that unfolded as she was grabbed by an angry official but became the first registered female runner to complete the course.
Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating. By Rose Viña. Illus. by Claire Almon. 2019. 32p. Albert Whitman (9780807534960). PreS–Gr. 1. 796.91.Of African American and Seminole descent, Mabel Fairbanks began skating in Central Park but was denied access to whites-only skating rinks in the 1930s. She honed her figure-skating skills while her coaches risked their reputations, but Fairbanks was still denied opportunities like the Olympics. This picture-book biography shows how she decided to use coaching as a way to advocate for other skaters of color.
LGBTQ+ Athletes Claim the Field: Striving for Equality. By Kirstin Cronn-Mills. 2016. 104p. Lerner/Twenty-First Century (9781467780124). Gr. 8–11. 796.086.Cronn-Mills reflects on athletes that have come out in the last decade and the mixed reactions they have received. The enlightening text examines both the prejudice these athletes face and how national organizations like the NCAA are striving to formalize antidiscrimination policies. A lengthy time line adds context, while numerous profiles of LGBTQ+ athletes and activists humanize these issues.
Moe Berg: Spy Catcher. By Jeri Cipriano. Illus. by Scott R. Brooks. 2018. 32p. Red Chair (9781634402941). Gr. 3–6. 940.54.Moe Berg, a Jewish Major League Baseball catcher, felt a “call to action” during WWII. Also talented with languages, he gave up baseball to become a U.S. spy to help defeat the Nazis. This picture-book biography, illustrated with sleek artwork and part of the Hidden History: Spies series, spotlights Moe’s formative years, his baseball career, and several of his daring missions. See also The Spy Who Played Baseball, by Carrie Jones (2018).
More than a Game: Race, Gender, and Politics in Sports. By Matt Doeden. 2019. 64p. Lerner/Millbrook (9781541540941). Gr. 5–8. 306.4.Doeden looks at the intersections among race, gender, politics, and social change within sports. Opening with Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem, this informational book is filled with short accounts of athletes, from Jesse Owens to Ibtihaj Muhammad, who broke barriers and used their roles to promote social justice. Numerous illustrations depict the athletes in action and activism.
Proud: Living My American Dream. By Ibtihaj Muhammad. 2018. 240p. Little, Brown (9780316477000). Gr. 6–12. 796.Muhammad, an Olympic medalist in fencing and the first Muslim woman to represent the U.S. in international competition, explores identity, her path to the 2016 Olympics, and their intersection in this memoir adapted for young readers. She discusses trying to fit into a mostly white, male sport and being a role model for young women, young Muslims, and young people of color. For elementary readers, there’s Ibtihaj Muhammad, by Daniel R. Faust (2018).
Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Raúl Colón. 2005. 40p. Atheneum (9780689856433). Gr. 2–4. 796.357.Clemente’s love for baseball and unrivaled work ethic took him from poverty in Puerto Rico to World Series triumph with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Evocative, soft-focused illustrations capture both worlds in this picture-book biography. The book also acknowledges his humanitarian efforts, including the plane crash that took his life while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Central America. See also Willie Perdomo’s Clemente! (2010).
Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. By James Sturm. Illus. by Rich Tommaso. 2007. 96p. Little, Brown (9781368042895). Gr. 6–12. 741.5.Narrated by a fictional sharecropper in Alabama who played in the Negro Leagues until an injury sidelined him, this graphic novel presents snapshots of Satchel Paige’s career against the backdrop of Jim Crow laws. The spare text and expressive illustrations use suspense to highlight Paige’s winning game against an all-white team. Concluding “panel discussions” explain images from the time period. David A. Adler’s Satchel Paige (2007) offers a similar story in a picture-book format.
Serena vs. Venus: How a Photograph Spotlighted the Fight for Equality. By Danielle Smith-Llera. 2017. 64p. Capstone/Compass Point (9780756555337). Gr. 5–8. 796.342092.Part of the Captured Sports History series, this volume uses the photo of the Williams sisters at the final match of the 2001 U.S. Open to discuss the history of women, particularly Black women, in professional tennis and Serena’s and Venus’ roles in fostering future players of color. Also in the series: Black Power Salute (2017), Olympic Gold 1936 (2017), and What a Kick (2016).
Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters. By Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Don Tate. 2020. 40p. Little, Brown (9780316481670). K–Gr. 1. 796.323.The origin of the Harlem Globetrotters is the focus of this energetic, informational picture book. As the first team barnstormed across the country, it developed its now-famous antics to ease the tension in white neighborhoods during segregation. After beating the best (and all-white) team in the National Basketball League, the Globetrotters eventually became “America’s Ambassadors of Goodwill.”
Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, the Only Golf Course Designed, Built, and Owned by an African American. By Richard Michelson. Illus. by Eric Velasquez. 2012. 32p. Sleeping Bear (9781585364664). Gr. 2–4. 796.352092.As a young Black boy, William Powell was allowed to caddy but never play golf on whites-only courses. Realistic artwork illustrates this picture-book biography, which recounts Powell’s fight to play golf during segregation and how he became the first African American to design and own a golf course. His Clearview Golf Course not only catered to Black players but also became the country’s first integrated course.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. By Laurie Ann Thompson. Illus. by Sean Qualls. 2015. 40p. Random (9780449817445). K–Gr. 2. 362.4092.Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in Ghana with a severely deformed leg, and when his single mother became sick, he was told to go out and beg like other disabled people. In this picture-book biography, expressive illustrations with warm colors depict how, instead, Emmanuel obtained a bicycle, became an activist (cycling 400 miles in 10 days), and influenced the passage of Ghana’s Persons with Disabilities Act.
In the Running with Ntando Mahlangu. By Kristy Stark. 2020. 32p. Full Tilt (9781629208428). Gr. 1–4. 796. Using straightforward yet upbeat text, this biography in the Teen Strong series explains how Mahlangu was born in South Africa, in 2002, with a severe congenital abnormality, hemimelia. After the charity Jumping Kids got him prosthetic legs when he was 10, Mahlangu won his first Paralympic silver medal at 14. The book further describes how this athlete has become an online celebrity for his activism.
Rick Hansen: Improving Life for People with Disabilities. By Adrianna Morganelli. 2016. 32p. Crabtree (9780778726920). Gr. 2–4. 796.04.Although an accident left Rick Hansen a paraplegic as a teenager, he fought to become the first person with a disability to graduate from the University of British Columbia with a degree in physical education. Part of the Remarkable Lives Revealed series, this biography focuses on his life as an athlete and activist, including his two-year “Man in Motion” wheelchair trip around the world.
A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic Games. By Lori Alexander. Illus. by Allan Drummond. 2020. 128p. Clarion (9781328580795). Gr. 3–7. 796.04.With a blend of cartoon spot art and period photos, this biography recounts how Jewish, German-born Dr. Ludwig Guttmann revolutionized the treatment of soldiers with spinal injuries during WWII. After encouraging spinal injury patients to exercise in their wheelchairs, he started wheelchair sports competitions at local hospitals in 1948, which evolved into the Paralympic Games.
Unsinkable: From Russian Orphan to Paralympic Swimming World Champion. By Jessica Long and Hannah Long. 2018. 112p. Clarion (9781328707253). Gr. 5–7. 796.Jessica Long, a Russian orphan who was adopted by a family in the U.S. and had both legs amputated below the knee, tells her story in this photo-illustrated autobiography. As she describes how her passion for swimming led to a professional career over 16 years and 4 Paralympics with 23 medals (13 gold), she serves as a role model and inspiration to other para-athletes.
Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber. By Sue Macy. Illus. by C. F. Payne. 2016. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman (9781481401203). Gr. 2–4. 070.4.Reverent caricature illustrations convey the story of Mary Garber, a young sports fan and budding journalist who became a sportswriter during WWII while many men were away. This picture-book biography also documents her reporting of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, her commitment to covering sporting events featuring Black athletes, and her pioneering role as a female sportswriter.
Angela Leeper is the Director of the Curriculum Materials Center at the University of Richmond, VA.
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