A Sporting Chance: from Incurables to Paralympic Champions

Lynn: I’ve seen a T-Shirt recently that proclaims, “I read. I know things.” I like that but what I want is a T-Shirt that says, “I didn’t know that!” I needed to wear that shirt when I read A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic  Games (Houghton, 2020). This truly outstanding book by Lori Alexander made me exclaim this sentiment the entirety of the book! The book is intended for younger readers, Gr. 2-5, and it introduces them to an extraordinary figure, Ludwig Guttmann. I am sorry to say that I knew nothing about Guttmann or his many outstanding contributions or so much more that Alexander so skillfully conveys.

Ludwig Guttmann’s early life was spent in Germany near the Polish border. A variety of experiences led him to become a neurologist and skilled surgeon. But when the Nazis came to power, Guttmann, a Jew, was forbidden to treat non-Jewish patients and then he lost his medical license completely. As conditions worsened for the Jewish people, Guttmann was able to escape to England where he had to begin again to establish himself as a physician. Finally, his deep interest and research in spinal injuries resulted in him establishing a neurology unit and resuming his ground-breaking work.  Again, I had absolutely no idea that spinal injuries were considered un-treatable as late as the end of WWII or that doctors expected patients to die within the year. It is no surprise that 80% of spinal injury patients did just that considering the prevailing appalling beliefs about treatment. Observing the benefits of sports participation for his patients, prompted Guttmann to establish and promote what became the Paralympics. Dr. Guttmann revolutionized understanding and treatment of spinal injury cases and thanks to this book, young readers will come away with a solid grasp of Guttmann’s contributions. They will also gain a real admiration for Guttmann, his perseverance, and the enormous obstacles he had to overcome in his life as well as his impact on the world.

Alexander does an outstanding job of presenting complex and wide-ranging information here for young readers, including scientific and historical background but not bogging down the text. The story is a fascinating one but it is also one with many facets and Alexander manages all of this extremely well. I learned so much from this enjoyable and really inspiring story. Now – where is that T-Shirt????

Cindy: “Incurables.” That’s what spinal injury patients were called. What a journey in the last 80 years and Ludwig Guttmann’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and cautionary. Perseverance and the belief that horrible situations do not have to remain the status quo are characteristics that young readers can learn from as they read this book.

The sometimes tough subject matter and the historical photos are supplemented perfectly for the young audience by Allan Drummond’s illustrations throughout the book. In 2011 we blogged about Energy Island, a book he both wrote and illustrated, and we’ve been fans of his ever since.

The final chapter, “Going for Gold,” features some of the amazing athletes who have won medals at the Paralympic Games.

I was moved to investigate the Paralympic Organization’s website and found this short video that includes Guttmann on their history page. There are more videos and information to be found there, including one about the Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Spinal Treatment Unit.

Dragon Hoops: Gene Luen Yang and Basketball

Cindy:  March Madness may be canceled, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have basketball in your life! Regular readers know they can count on a basketball book from Bookends each March. Have we got a champion for you this year! Dragon Hoops (First Second, 2020) by Gene Luen Yang puts a new finger roll, er…spin, on graphic novel memoirs. Yang needs a story idea and wonders if a comic nerd can get his head in the game by following his high school basketball team’s run for the state championship. Yang teaches math and computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA. He steps out of his comfort zone and talks to Coach Lou Richie about his idea, even though he’s unsure that it’s a good one. In superhero stories, you know who the good guys and bad guys are and who will win in the end. That’s not the case in sports.

Dragon Hoops is an interesting blend of an O’Dowd basketball season, player backstories (including their ethnic, racial, or religious identities and the challenges they’ve overcome related to those), basketball history, and Yang’s pull between teaching, comics, and his family life. The recurring theme of taking a “step”—across a threshold, onto a court, or into a life-changing decision—is beautifully played. Once again, Yang takes not just a step, but a giant leap in his graphic novel mastery…I can’t wait to see the finished book with its shiny gold foil cover accents. (It published yesterday so we no longer have to wait!)

Lynn: I’ve loved all of Gene Yang’s previous books but this one takes the game into overtime! It is highly entertaining and completely engaging while at the same time doing so much. Yes, it is about a championship basketball season but it is also about family, commitment, the craft of writing, courage, fidelity to the truth in story, friendship, work ethic, love and more. It is important to remember that while Yang is a superb storyteller, he is also a superb artist. He is masterful at conveying emotions through his deceptively simple drawings and in this book he also manages to create the intense action of a championship basketball season. Dragon Hoops leaves a reader feeling both satisfied and deeply thoughtful. This book is a winner!

Cindy and Lynn: Follow Gene Luen Yang on Facebook or Instagram to see some of the great promos accompanying this social-distanced book launch. He’s working hard to make up for the canceled book tour.

Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.