Abery, Julie, and Chris Sasaki, illustrator. Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30031-8. unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.
In the 1930s, children on Maui played in the irrigation ditches lining the Hawaiian island’s sugar cane plantations. Local science teacher Soichi Sakamoto took an interest in training the kids in proper swimming techniques, reinforcing their “pace, rhythm / strength, speed.” After the sugar company built a community pool, Sakamoto and his swimmers formed the Three-Year Swim Club with hopes of competing at the Olympic Games. World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 Summer Olympics, but Coach Sakamoto’s athletes continued to train, and one of them won a gold medal (and set records) at the 1948 Olympics in London! Author Julie Abery tells this true story in short passages of rhyming verse that are packed with meaning. For example, on the page representing the start of WWII with smoke over an empty lap pool, she writes, “Dawn raids shatter / peaceful skies. / Athletes answer / country’s cries.” Chris Sasaki’s illustrations depict smiling young swimmers churning through the water, as well as the beautiful colors and natural wonders of Maui.
THOUGHTS: True stories of athletes overcoming long odds are always popular; this one is also a great example of illustrated nonfiction for young readers.
Picture Book Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics. New York: Viking, 2015. 978-1-101-47592-3. 240 p. $17.99. Grade 5+.
The Great Depression was a difficult time for millions of people, including young Joe Rantz, who was forced out of his home because his family couldn’t care for him. Although Joe went back to his family, he was later sent away by his new stepmother who didn’t want any reminders of her husband’s previous family. In order to survive, Joe worked hard and learned to be self-reliant. He was bright and realized that college would enable him to achieve the financial independence he needed. He was accepted by the University of Washington in Seattle and tried out for the rowing team in order to stay at the university. Many of Joe’s teammates on the rowing team were in a similar position; they didn’t come from wealthy families and were used to hard physical labor. The boys on the boat were strong, but they were also insecure and didn’t know how to work together as a team. As they began to connect and rely on each other, they started to win against more skilled teams from California and the East Coast. Finally, they found the perfect synchrony that only exists in the best rowing teams, and they were on the path to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
797.12; Memoir; Rowing Susan Fox, Washington JSHS
Although this book is supposed to be about the entire University of Washington rowing team that went to the Berlin Olympics, it is arguably Joe Rantz’s story. His life circumstances were almost unimaginably tragic, but he constantly picked himself up and worked to improve his situation. This aspect of the story alone makes The Boys in the Boat a worthy read for students. Although I didn’t find the coach’s speeches and the race descriptions to be that interesting, the human aspects of the story are engaging. The book’s treatment of Nazi Germany during the 1936 Olympics is somewhat controversial; the author portrays Germany as the rowers saw it, a friendly and scenic European country. They seemed to have little awareness of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and the coming storm. On a final note, this book is very strong in the amount of supporting documentation it offers; there are many photographs, a timeline, a diagram/ description of the “art of rowing”, and a notes/ index section that will be included in the final version of the book. The Boys in the Boat will be a wonderful addition to any middle grade library.