Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics by John Feinstein - Veteran sportswriter and Edgar Award-winning mystery writer John Feinstein has set his latest book at the London Olympics. Beginning with the World Championships, following through with the Olympic Trials and then on to the Olympic Games themselves, his super sleuth sports reporter Susan Carol Anderson is swimming in the games instead of covering them. This leaves her friend and fellow reporter Stevie Thomas to cover the games on his own. But all is not just guts and glory at the Olympics. Susan Carol's athletic abilities --- as well as her photogenic face and figure --- have drawn the interest of promoters and agents. And some people will stop at nothing to ensure their pick wins the Olympic gold. While Rush for the Gold is technically the sixth book in Feinstein's popular Last Shot series --- about two kids who win a contest to become reporters at the sporting world's most exclusive events --- this can be read as a stand-alone title and as a timely tie-in to current events. Best for ages 10+
Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas - Drawing from her experience as a competitive gymnast, Donna Freitas presents another athletic title just in time for the Olympic games. Gold Medal Summer is a coming-of-age novel about Joey Jordan, a gymnast who's pushing herself to become a champion after her sister retires exhausted and injured at 16. Thanks in part to a teammate who become distracted by a new boyfriend, Joey has a shot at regional. She wants to stretch her limits with new beam and floor routines, even if it means going against the wishes of her coach. But there are lots of distractions from the focus Joey feels she needs, whether it's her best friend Alex who's thinking about leaving gymnastics, or her old friend Tanner, who’s suddenly gotten very cute. Freitas captures the common experiences of adolescence while setting it against the high-pressure world of competitive gymnastics. Ages 10+
Two series also focus on gold medal hopefuls. The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts series by Olympic Gold medalist Dominique Moceanu and Alicia Thompson is about a team of gymnasts in Austin, TX. Each book in the series features a different character on the team --- whether it's home-schooled Britt in Winning Team (Go-for-Gold Gymnasts Series #1), who doesn't realize showboating won't win her the loyalty of her teammates, or Noelle Onesti in the series second book, Balancing Act, whose Romanian parents struggle to find the money she needs to buy a plane ticket to Nationals. Reaching High features Jessie, who must choose between gymnastics and outside activities she has come to love, while Unexpected Twist is about Christina, who must learn to cope with an injury. Each of these books is new this summer, featuring the lives of competitive gymnasts on their way to the top.
A somewhat older series that features a wider variety of sports is Donna King's Going for the Gold series, about girls participating in competitive athletics in a wider variety of sports. The books include Kickoff, about an army brat who works out her frustration on the soccer field; Riding High, about an equestrian who loses her nerve when she witnesses another rider's horse get injured; Slam Dunk, about a basketball player who enlists her estranged pro-ball father for help with her game; and Game, Set and Match, about a tennis prodigy who must learn if she still loves the game while away from her parents at tennis camp. The Going for the Gold series also has Balancing Act, a gymnastics title, and Double Twist, which is about ice skating.
These books reminded me of two other classic children's series regarding kids as young competitors. Jill Krementz's photojournalistic titles feature kids in competitive situations, including A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Skater, A Very Young Rider , and my favorite, A Very Young Circus Flyer, about a boy whose family were trapeze artists in the circus. These books are now largely out-of-print, and their 70s-style photography may seem humorous and outdated to contemporary readers. Nevertheless, these were some of the first books ever to open the world of competitive athletics to me, complete with the hours of practice and sacrifice required for these kids to become the best at their sports.
Even more old-fashioned is Noel Streatfeild's Shoes series. Streatfeild is probably best known for her classic Ballet Shoes, about three adopted sisters who set out to provide for themselves and their family when their guardian goes missing. Pauline ends up having a theatrical streak, while Posy has a natural gift for dance. But I've always felt the story belonged to Petrova, who hates the performing life and only participates because it's all she can do as a child to help provide for her family. She can't wait to grow up and become a mechanic.
Streatfeild's insight into family dynamics and the world of child performers --- who can forget the terrible tantrums Pauline throws, or the punishment she receives having to watch an understudy go on for her in a coveted role --- feels simultaneously classic and fresh. Even better, Streatfeild went on to write numerous Shoes titles about children at the top of their field, such as Skating Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Circus Shoes, and Theater Shoes. Many of these books are back in print and they are well worth seeking out, and work well for independent readers ages 8+ or as read-aloud titles.
One of the things about the Olympics that brings such appeal to youth audiences is that most of the athletes are young people. Some of them are still teenagers themselves (though the rules state that competitors cannot be younger than 16). Most of these athletes have been training from a very early age to reach the excellence required to be a part of the games. For readers looking for a historical perspective on the Olympic games, popular sports author Matt Christopher has a book called Greatest Moments in the Summer Olympics , which traces some of the Olympics’ most memorable moments --- whether it’s Jesse Owens' four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, making him the top medal winner of the games and disproving Hitler's theories of racial inferiority; Wilma Rudolph, who overcome poverty and crippling polio to become the world's fastest female runner in 1960, breaking records and winning three gold medals; or Mary Lou Retton, the first American gymnast to win the Olympics all-around title. The stories in Greatest Moments in the Summer Olympics are both heartbreaking and inspirational, drawing attention to Olympic moments that resonated beyond the excellence of the athletes’ performances in the limited scope of the games, for larger narratives about a culture of excellence, and the reasons why people strive to reach impossible goals.
What are your favorite Olympic moments? What events do you look forward to watching this year?
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