Olympics in the classroom: books on sport for children

From diversity and Greek mythology to the science of sport and picture books, a collection to teach children the spirit of the games

Updated - July 30, 2021 02:13 pm IST

Published - July 30, 2021 02:11 pm IST

“Aunty, do you know that when Michael Phelps was small, he was scared of water?” piped up a young voice in class. We were chatting about the greatest Olympian of all time. “And Simone Biles was adopted, my mother told me,” added another, incidentally an adoptee herself. As a library consultant and story educator, I have come to realise this wonderful way to introduce past and present athletes to children of all ages, opening a window into lives so different from their own, and showing them that dreams do come true. With the torch lit and the Olympic spirit in full force on our phones and TVs, it wasn’t difficult to turn their attention to a few specific picture biographies.The Story of Simone Biles by Rachelle Burk (2020, Rockridge Press) charts her life from a foster child to the greatest gymnast in the world. Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull (1996) documents the journey of a child with polio to that of an Olympic gold medallist. Who was Jesse Owens? by James Buckley Jr (2015), tells Jesse’s journey overcoming the challenges of Jim Crow’s laws to challenging racial supremacy on the world stage. Grit, fortitude and the power of community are just some of the themes in these books.

Stories from Greek mythology have always been popular in my area of work as children are fascinated by how they trace the etymology of common words and expressions. Last week, we began with how the ancient Olympics were held in honour of Zeus; of Kallipateira, who defied the stringent laws that did not allow married women to watch the Olympics, so she could watch her son compete; and Pheidippides the messenger’s run at the Battle of Marathon, a historical event which today’s race commemorates. These stories created a huge buzz about the Games among my students, as they tracked its journey to its modern avatar. The new Olympic motto, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together’ also helps them learn to appreciate our diverse world.

The backstory : The Story of the Olympics by Mina Lacey (2010) is perfect for younger children, while Richard Brassey’s book by the same name (2011) will satisfy the curiosity of the older ones. You Wouldn’t Want to be a Greek Athlete by Micheal Ford (2004) places the reader in the story, dealing with the nudity and violence of the ancient games deftly and with humour that both educates and entertains.

Key events such as the lighting of the Olympic flame in Olympia, and Greece’s position in the Parade of Nations have all piqued a deeper interest in Greek mythology. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and Greek Myths for Young Children by Anna Milbourne (1999) are a child-friendly introduction to these fascinating tales. The Hour of the Olympics (1998) and its companion book Ancient Greece and the Olympians from the Magic Tree House series (2004) are a perfect combination of fiction and non-fiction reads.

Indian athletes: Sportswomen like weightlifter Mirabai Chanu — who won a silver on day one, badminton player PV Sindhu, and boxer Mary Kom have sown little dreams in the hearts and minds of my students. While, unfortunately, there are no books available about current athletes, in the picture book format, Dipa Karmarkar by Sreelatha Menon (2017) is a wonderful story of the hard work and dedication needed to reach the world stage. India at the Olympics by Seetha Natesh (2021, Harper Children’s) celebrates 100 years of Indian athletes’ participation in the games, its achievements and records, and profiles some of India’s biggest sporting legends. Shuttling to the Top: The Story of PV Sindhu by Krishnaswamy V (2020, HarperSport) and Unbreakable by MC Mary Kom (2013) are inspiring reads for teens.

Geography : “I saw the eagle on Mexico’s flag,” said one student, as we discussed the parade of nations, recalling the Aztec myth that inspired its coat of arms. The Olympics offer the perfect opportunity for children interested in geography to familiarise themselves with the location of the countries and their flags. A good picture atlas and book of flags are invaluable resources to have on hand. Children’s Picture Atlas by Collin Kids (Collins, 2019) and The Book of Flags by Rob Colson (2017) are great options.

Science: Does Farting Make You Faster? by Glenn Murphy (2012) and The Secret Science of Sports by Jennifer Swanson (2021, Black Dog & Leventhal) are my choices to keep a child fascinated by the science of sport.

Culture: The host country, Japan, with its unique heritage on display at the opening ceremony had the children talking about manga, anime and a host of cartoons. Japanese folktales like The Boy Who Drew Cats by Anushka Ravishankar and Christine Kastl (2009), and Urashima Taro and Other Japanese Children’s Favourite Stories by Florence Sakade (2018) will give them a peek into the country’s rich traditions.

Inclusivity : This year’s Olympics has focused on solidarity and inclusion. What Are The Paralympic Games? by Gail Herman (2020, Penguin Workshop) details why the paralympics was started. While three Indian published sports themed books — Against All Odds by Ramendra Kumar (2016), and Kittu’s Very Bad Day by Harshikaa Udasi (2017), and Wings to Fly by Sowmya Rajendran (2006), are what I would want them to read to appreciate diverse abilities and the can-do spirit of these athletes.

In their words:The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to compete and win a medal in a hijab, and She’s Got This by Laurie Hernandez are just two of the wonderful children’s books written by athletes. Reading these and other books by athelete authors are a wonderful way for my children to see the different facets of athletes and break stereotypes often associated with them.

Poetry: I cannot resist suggesting the fun book of Olympic Poems: 100% Unofficial by Brian Moses and Roger Stevens (2016), as this is a genre not appreciated by many of my children.

The writer is a Chennai-based library educator who uses stories to open conversations around diverse topics. She shares her work on mythaunty.com.

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