by Sharon Kane
I will admit, I like reading nonfiction books that were first written and published for an adult market and then adapted for a younger audience, and sharing them with the teens and pre-service teachers I work with. My latest reading adventure of this type involved The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, written by Daniel James Brown and adapted for young readers by Gregory Mone (Viking, 2015). The story focuses mainly on the youth Joe Rantz, though it is hard to single out one protagonist when it was the team effort that made the unlikely and amazing victory in the Olympic rowing race a reality.
The author met Joe Rantz toward the end of Joe’s life, but Joe was still able and ready to tell the story. Joe’s childhood was filled with hardship and sadness. His mother died when he was four, and that was the beginning of a series of losses and betrayals. For example, when Joe was ten, his stepmother demanded that his father choose between Joe and her. His father turned him over to the local schoolteacher, having made a deal that the child would sleep at the school in exchange for splitting wood to keep the fireplace stoked. Joe learned to care for himself and not depend on or trust anyone.
As a college student at Washington State, Joe’s background both helped and hindered him as a member of the crew team. It helped him be strong and disciplined, but a team has to work together, trust each other, and be willing to sacrifice for the others, and these things came hard for him. Luckily, there were mentors on his archetypal hero’s journey, and Joe learned how to forgive and to love.
In a note from the author preceding this edition, Daniel James Brown speaks fondly of the young people who talk to him at book signings about their own goals. The story of the nine team members who rowed past the Italians, past the Germans, and past Hitler when the odds were against them kindles the young people’s desire to persist, even after failed attempts. Brown recounts:
It is easy for those of us who are older and count ourselves wise to forget that it is the young who most often move the world forward. It is the young who have the boundless energy, passion, optimism, courage, and idealism to try to do what we elders might say is impossible. That’s what the boys in the boat attempted to do in this story. That’s why, eighty years later at my book-signing table, old men and women come to me with tears in their eyes, proudly remembering when they were young and full of fire. And it’s why standing right next to them are young men and women with beaming faces, bearing tales of their own brave attempts at the near impossible. (xi)
Reading this book made me want to read more about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I know many other stories from that event intertwine with this one. And I can’t wait to visit high school classrooms to give book talks about this book in conjunction with others that relate to that time and place. I think I’ll pair it with the fictional The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow (2011, HarperTeen) and Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction account Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (the Young Adult Adaptation, 2014, Delacorte).
Little did those boys in the boat know that in 2016 their story would be making history come alive for readers of all ages.
-Appropriate for middle school and high school
(physical education, history, psychology, ELA)