higher, faster, stronger…celebrate the 2021 Olympics

Last week we took a little tour of Japan,
acquainting ourselves with our host country for the 2021 Olympics.

This week I’ve got books detailing the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism
these games are famous for,
as we get ready for the Opening Ceremonies next week.
Overviews of all the summer sports,
a look at the Paralympics,
plus books featuring each of the five sports
new to the 2021 games.
Dive in!

On Your Mark, Get Set, Gold!: An Irreverent Guide to the Sports of the Summer Games
written by Scott Allen, illustrated by Antoine Gorbineau
published in 2020 by Nosy Crow
96 pages

This colorful catalogue showcases each of the sports that are part of the Olympic Summer Games, from triathlon to BMX riding, rowing to taekwondo.

Each sport gets a snazzy two-page spread popping with tidbits of information including rules, history, skills, and jargon. Weirdly there is also a meter showing your “chance of becoming a champion” which appears to be measured solely on how many people participate in this sport worldwide.

It’s a smart, contemporary mix of flamboyant color, cool design, plus just enough info to whet your interest and give you the basics needed to appreciate the sport. A terrific resource for spectators ages 9 and up.

A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic Games
written by Lori Alexander, illustrated by Allan Drummond
published in 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
95 pages + back matter

Introducing the man who founded the Paralympic Games, German-born Ludwig Guttmann. Guttmann began practicing medicine as a young man by volunteering in WWI-era hospitals. As he continued through medical studies and doctoring, he was troubled by the lack of care for paraplegics. These patients were, at that time, written off by doctors as beyond hope, but Guttmann thought otherwise and seized every opportunity to change medical practices in their treatment. He was a force of nature, apparently, who would not be deterred from giving his patients their very best shot at a healthy and happy life.

At one juncture, Guttmann realized that sport was an area in which paraplegics could excel. From there it was merely a matter of shifting the perspective of the rest of the world! Which he did year by year beginning with organized competitions in his adopted country of England, and then moving to the international stage and the Paralympics as we know them today.

I have to say, the first half of this book details some rather intense medical issues including descriptions and a photograph of a wicked-nasty bedsore, and the ins and outs of catheters. The Nazi movement and Holocaust also occupy a portion of the account, as Guttmann was a German Jew and had to flee the country.  All of this is helpful in order to understand how dismal the status quo was before he revolutionized care of paraplegia, but might be a bit much for young children. I think it’s possible to quickly summarize this material and pick up the story midway along when the sporting aspect enters the picture, if that’s best for those in your household. Overall, it’s an eye-opening read for ages 12 through adult.

A second book focusing on the paralympics came out this June. Though I haven’t had a chance to read it, it looks like a great choice for younger readers and listeners:

Lucas at the Paralympics, written by Igor Plohl, illustrated by Urska Stropnik Sonc
published in 2021 by Holiday House

Here’s what the publisher’s blurb says about it:

Lucas and Eddie, two physically disabled friends, visit the Paralympics and cheer on blind and physically challenged athletes as they compete in running, swimming, sitting volleyball, para archery, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair basketball, and more.

Readers learn about some of the rules that expedite play and that even the playing field. For example, blind runners wear blindfolds so none of the competitors (some totally blind and some with limited sight) have an unfair advantage. Also, all of the blind competitors are tethered to guides.

Author Igor Plohl, who lost the use of his legs after a spinal injury, is a teacher and passionate advocate for raising awareness of physical disability. As a teacher, he knows the questions children ask and how to answer them. Ages 4 and up.

G is for Gold Medal: An Olympics Alphabet, written by Brad Herzog, illustrated by Doug Bowles
published in 2011 by Sleeping Bear Press

Even though this and the following book are a bit outdated, they still have plenty of pertinent info presented enticingly to warrant looking in your library for them.

The Olympic alphabet is comprised of 26 short entries touching on everything from the history of the games to memorable victors, interesting statistics, and quirky tales like the story of one ecstatic dad who jumped right into the swimming pool. Colorful illustrations abound. It’s a fun overview for ages 7 and up.

Through Time: Olympics, written by Richard Platt, illustrated by Manuela Cappon
published in 2012 by Kingfisher

This somewhat lengthier book traces the emergence, evolution, and growth of the Games from Ancient Greece up to the London 2012 Games. Illustrations are the star of the show as we watch gradual changes over the centuries in architecture, clothing styles, athletic apparel, stadiums and venues, athletes and events.

Platt has written a couple of paragraphs about each of 19 different Olympics. Added to this are a few intriguing highlights, maps of the host cities, and a few stats. Be aware that the terrorism at the Munich Games is highlighted. It’s a nice browsing book for Olympic fans ages 8 and up.


There are four sports brand new to the 2021 Games
and one being revived after some time out of the Games.
Here are books introducing us to all five:


Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku, written by Ellie Crowe, illustrated by Richard Waldrep
published in 2007 by Lee & Low

Somehow I never knew that surfing was part of ancient Hawaiian/Polynesian culture unknown to the rest of the world until Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku began demonstrating and teaching it on his numerous globetrotting excursions.

Kahanamoku literally grew up in the waters of Hawaii, having been plunked in the surf as a preschooler and told to “go out as far as he wanted.” A self-taught swimmer who was ferociously fast, he won medals in the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympic games. His enormous success and popularity led to his being invited to swimming exhibitions around the world and he seized the opportunity to demonstrate surfing which quickly caught on from Australia to Mexico. I wonder if he will be honored in some way in Tokyo? Find out lots more about the Father of Surfing in this somewhat-lengthy picture book biography for ages 6 and up.

Indi Surfs, written and illustrated by Chris Gorman
published in 2015 by POW!

For kids too young to manage the depth of the Kahanamoku biography, this striking picture book simply brings them face to face with one determined, very young surfer.

When we watch champions surf, it looks so easy. In minimal text and cool, eye-catching illustrations, Indi show us just how much hard work is involved, the skills, the falls, the patience, the persistence…all of that comes before the joy of catching a big wave.

Dazzling, for ages 3 and up.


Karate Kids, written and illustrated by Holly Sterling
published in 2020 by Candlewick Press

Head to the dojo with Maya — an eager beginner — meet her karate friends, and work through some moves with them at their Saturday practice.

Upbeat and kindhearted, this is karate for the smallest-of-allest. Learn some basic terms and ideas, try out a stance or two, breathe deeply and have fun! A happy introduction for ages 2-5.

Karate Kakapo, written by Loredana Cunti, illustrated by Stacy Curtis
published in 2019 by Kids Can Press

Kakapo is crazy about karate, throwing her chubby green body into kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances with focus and aplomb…

…except for one little thing.  Kakapo cannot get the hang of a flying kick. Stands to reason: kakapos can’t fly! Thus the day of Kakapo’s test for her black belt is a nervous day indeed.  She’s perfectly confident of everything except that dratted flying kick.  Will the senseis understand that as a kakapo she simply has to get her black belt without that skill?

Find out how dear Kakapo flies through her test and conquers her kicks with the help of some sage advice from Sensei in this charming, happy story. Illustrations splash verve and personality everywhere and star a little kakapo we can all relate to. It’s a flying success for ages 4 and up.


Nyjah Huston: Skateboard Superstar, by Matt Chandler
published in 2021 by Capstone Press

I am starting from zero in my learning about this new Olympic sport and here is what I’ve discovered: Nyjah Huston is at the top of the world right now in street skateboarding.

This short biography pops with color photographs showcasing Huston’s progress and prowess from childhood on as it introduces us to the athlete and partially introduces us to the sport. I learned a good bit about Huston and I look forward to watching him compete. Some skateboard lingo used in the text — kickflip, ollie, tailslide — is defined for us in the brief glossary, though not all of it by any means. Thus sentences like, “a kickflip to frontside nosegrind on the bump to rail 360 kickflip over the long fun box” remain basically incomprehensible to those of us out of the loop.

But it’s a great way to meet Nyjah before the Games begin, for ages 7 and up.

Skate the World: Photographing One World of Skateboarding, by Jonathan Mehring
published in National Geographic in 2015

For the sheer joy and celebration of diversity in the world of skateboarding, check out this coffee table book featuring the stunning work of award-winning photographer Jonathan Mehring.

Hundreds of glossy pages showcase the athleticism, colorfulness, audacity, grit, and adventure of professionals and children alike in locations across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

In urban spaces and skate parks, refugee camps and deserts, and even one location on the ocean, we witness the soaring and flipping and riding and, yes, falling that are all trademarks of this sport.  Super enjoyable to browse for ages 5 through adult.
And P.S.  There’s a 12-year-old skateboarder
and a 14-year-old skateboarder
competing at the Olympics for Great Britain this year.
The U.S. team includes a 14-year-old and two 16-year-olds
so this is definitely an event you will want to watch with your kiddos!


How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion
written by Ashima Shiraishi, illustrated by Yao Xiao
published in 2020 by Make Me a World

Ashimi Shiraishi has taken the climbing world by storm since she was so very young, beginning with clambers in NYC’s Central Park when she was just 6 years old and proceeding to record-breaking climbs as a teenager.

This jazzy, colorful book lets us listen in on the kinds of thinking she does to “solve problems” which is what actual boulders are called in this sport — problems. Solving a problem in rock climbing means figuring out the route, the teensy hand holds, the nearly-not-there seams, the painstaking sequence of moves needed to reach the top. These problems are rated by degree of difficulty, which we’ll see more of when we watch the climbers in Tokyo.

I wish some of that was explained in this book. Instead it’s a very hip showcase of Shiraishi’s craft and the way bouldering is a metaphor for problem solving in the rest of life. Share it with ages 5 and up.

Climb!: Your Guide to Bouldering, Sport Climbing, Trad Climbing, Ice Climbing, Alpinism, and More
by Pete Takeda
published in 2002 by National Geographic

Sport climbing is making its Olympic debut this year with three featured disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing.
In speed climbing, 2 climbers race against each other up an approximately 50 foot wall. That’s a five story building.  Prepare to be utterly astonished!  They will scale it in just a few seconds!
In bouldering, climbers try to climb as many fixed routes on a 4.5 meter wall as they can in 4 minutes. They do not get a chance to practice these “problems” ahead of time.
In lead climbing they’ll compete to climb as high as possible in a specified time.

Get acquainted with the lingo, techniques, gear, and thrill of bouldering and sport climbing, as well as several other types of climbing not included in the Olympics with this slim guide packed with National Geographic-quality photographs. This promises to be one of the most exciting events to watch in Tokyo. This intro will help us take it all in. Independent readers ages 11 and up. Share portions aloud with younger kids.

(Baseball is being reintroduced to the Olympics this year, after being dropped from the Games since 2008.)

Take Me Out to the Yakyu, written and illustrated by Aaron Meshon
published in 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Pretty much the perfect book for the return of baseball to the Tokyo Olympics, this is a side-by-side look at the way fans experience baseball in America and in Japan.

Accompany one young Asian-American boy as he goes to games on both sides of the ocean. See how the same great parts of a ball game — snacks, the crack of the bat, the seventh inning stretch — are different for American and Japanese fans. Vibrant illustrations, fascinating material, plus a great Author’s Note telling more about the history of baseball in each country, differences in game length, stadiums, and mascots. Brilliant for ages 4 and up!

Barbed Wire Baseball, written by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
published in 2013 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura was born in Japan in 1900, then moved with his family to Hawaii at age eight. There he fell in love with baseball, excelled at it, played, coached, managed, brought the sport to Japan popularizing it there — little wonder he is called the father of Japanese American baseball.

Sadly, however, Zeni was among the over-100,000 Japanese Americans interned during WWII. He, his wife, and their two sons were transported to the stark desert camp at Gila River, Arizona. There, against all odds and with incredible resolve, Zeni set about constructing a baseball field complete with bleachers, organized the sewing of uniforms and the purchase of equipment, and assembled 32 teams in 3 divisions!! Clearly the games there were much more meaningful than mere sporting fun.

With the return of baseball to the Olympics in Japan, it’s a great time to read about one of the men instrumental in making this a truly global sport, as well as remind ourselves of the wounds borne by Japanese Americans. Gorgeous artwork and an excellent narrative style make this a fascinating choice for ages 6 and up.


Enjoy brushing up on all these Olympic sports
and cheering on the globe-ful of athletes at this year’s games!

You can find dozens and dozens more books starring a plethora of sports on my list here.