Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker

Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker

Meryl Henderson
Nonfiction  Series
For ages 8 to 12
Simon and Schuster, 2008   ISBN: 978-1416939221

James Cleveland Owens lived with his family in the Alabama countryside where his father was a sharecropper who worked on the land of a white landowner. The family was very poor, so poor indeed that when James (or J.C as his family called him) had a “bump” on his chest, his parents could not afford to take him to the doctor. Instead J.C.’s mother cut the bump out with a heat sterilized knife. J.C. almost bled to death from the procedure but because of his courage and sheer will, he survived.

Not long after this event J.C. and his family moved north. It was decided that they needed to make the move to Cleveland, where J.C.’s sister Lillie was living, so that J.C. and his siblings could have more opportunities and better prospects for the future.

The first thing that changed when J.C. started going to a city school was his name. Instead of J.C. his teacher called him Jesse and the name stuck. Jesse had a certain amount of catching up to do because he had missed so much school when he had lived in Alabama. He worked hard though and did his best. The other thing that he did was to join the track team.

Jesse was a skinny and rather weak boy when he began to train with the team but his coach, Charles Riley, saw that Jesse had potential and he worked with him. Riley told Jesse that he should not pay attention to the other runners. Instead he should concentrate on himself and focus on his own race and his own achievements. This Jesse did his best to do and slowly but surely he got stronger and faster all the time.

When he went to High School Jesse became a track star. During this time he tied the world record in the hundred yard dash. Because of his successes many colleges wanted him to attend their school but in the end Jesse chose Ohio State and he did very well at the college despite the fact that racism was widespread on campus. He broke several world records while he was at Ohio State and when he was in his Sophomore year, in 1936, he participated in the Berlin Olympic Games.

Adolf Hitler would have liked to have kept the black athletes out the games but the Olympic committee would never have allowed it so Jesse and his fellow black athletes were able to go and compete. Jesse was given a very friendly welcome by the German people, even if Hitler himself snubbed him, and in turn Jesse performed like a star, going home with four gold medals. He had gone to the games knowing that a great deal rested on his shoulders and he did an incredible job proving to the whole world that black people could be as good in athletics as white people.

This excellent title in the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series will fascinate readers who have heard about Jesse Owens but who don’t know his extraordinary story. Written especially for a younger reading audience, this book is perfectly paced and it touches on the subjects of racism, intolerance, and bigotry with great sensitivity.