Welcome to the fourth installment of Brightly’s Book Club for Kids, where we encourage young readers to read together, explore important topics through books, and have some fun! This month’s choice is nonfiction, but we promise, it has all the suspense of a great novel. In fact, when my eight-year-old saw me reading it and started looking through the pictures, he asked for his own copy so he could read it too. Talk about a family book club moment!
What makes this book even better for the whole family to read is that it comes in a newer young reader adaptation as well as the original adult version, both of which are perfect for sports fanatics, dreamers, and anyone who loves a good underdog story. We bet you won’t be able to put it down. So settle in and get started on The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown!
This Month’s Selection
Best For: Kids ages 8 – 18. Teens and adults can read the original, while younger readers can use the adapted version. Both cover the same material and plot points, but the young reader edition has an abridged text and additional pictures and graphics.
What It’s About: The book follows the lives of nine young men from the Pacific Northwest as they train to become the American gold medal rowing team at the 1936 Olympics. While the lives of each of the men involved in this epic story is fascinating, the life of Joe Rantz, the book’s central character, stands out as truly inspirational. Born to a family without financial means and abandoned by his father, Joe lets nothing stand in the way of his dreams of attending college and, ultimately, joining the University of Washington crew team.
Major Themes: Perseverance, overcoming obstacles, teamwork, trust, friendship, passion, the importance of following your dreams.
Why We Picked It: This is a compelling and inspirational story of young men who come together from different backgrounds, build lifelong friendships, and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win Olympic gold. It’s a tale of the centrality of dreams, the hope that keeps us going even in the bleakest of times, and the glory of seeing a goal achieved. The Boys in the Boat isn’t just a fantastic story, it’s a model of lives well-lived. Whether coaching a group of untrained students into a cohesive unit, earning a spot on the crew team, or building the perfect boat, these characters strive for the purity of the sport and a sense of belonging — not for fame or money.
A Word of Caution For Sensitive Readers: One of the main characters has a troubled family life and is abandoned by his father as a boy. Readers are also introduced to the rise of Nazi Germany and the crippling poverty of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
Suggestions for Younger Readers:
If you have children who are too young to read The Boys in the Boat, try one of these picture books:
What You’ll Need for Book Club
You’ll need the book, DIY decorations, book-themed snacks, our printable discussion questions (see below), and access to the Internet.
- Spiff up your space with an Olympic flag or banner to set the tone.
- If you’re feeling really creative, make a few torches to light the way to the boathouse. You can make a simple fake torch for the younger members of the book club or something a bit more complicated for the older kids.
- Boys on the Boat Bananas: You’ll need bananas, nut butter or sticky spread (like Nutella or marshmallow fluff), thin pretzel sticks and pretzel nuggets. Simply slice bananas longwise and put on a plate flat side up. Slather your choice of nut butter or spread on the flat side. Put nine pretzel nuggets on the banana (one for each boy) and give each nugget two thin pretzel sticks as oars. Eat before they row away!
- Cedar Plank Salmon: If you want to have a true Pacific Northwest culinary experience, try this delicious recipe for dinner on book club night, while imagining Joe catching salmon to earn money to get through college.
- Berry Pie: Marion berries are uniquely Northwestern, but you can substitute blackberries or raspberries in these amazing desserts.
The Book Club Discussion
The Boys in The Boat is about winning races and finding Olympic victory, but more importantly it’s about teamwork and friendship. Joe and his boat-mates learn that every person on the team makes a contribution, whether or not they end up on the medal podium. Similarly, everyone’s opinion matters and everyone has something to contribute to the discussion in book club.
When you sit down to talk about The Boys in the Boat as a group, try working together to help each other understand the historical context of the book and finer points of rowing, and to identify overarching themes. Encourage each other to open up and share your thoughts; listen to and learn from each other. You’re all in it together. Remember, there are no winners or losers in book club!
- Did you know anything about rowing before you read this book? What was the most surprising thing you learned about the sport?
- How do you think Joe Rantz’s tough childhood affected him as he grew up?
- Rowing requires teamwork and trust. How did the boys in the boat learn to trust each other? Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to trust someone? Share one of those times.
- The rowers in this story all had to work really hard both on the water and on land. What were their practices like? Talk about how you think that hard work shaped them.
- Do you think Al Ulbrickson was a good coach? What things did he do that you approve of? Was there anything he did that you didn’t like? Does it matter how a coach behaves, so long as his team wins?
- How were George Pocock and Al Ulbrickson similar and/or different? Who did Joe relate to more and why?
- Rowing is sometimes thought of as an “elite” sport (and in the 1930s, it certainly was). How did the boys in the boat change that perception?
- How were the 1936 Olympics different from the ones that came before and after?
- The book also talks about the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the Nazis. What happened to Germany when Hitler came to power? How did that affect how you feel about the 1936 Olympics?
- What was your favorite scene or moment in this book and why? Compare your answers.
Kick It Up a Notch
Games and Activities:
- Watch the 1936 Race: Search for YouTube videos (like the one above) of the amazing gold medal race in the 1936 Olympics, and see Joe and his team’s impossible finish with your own eyes.
- Get to Know Today’s Rowers: Want to know more about the best rowers in the world today? Check out the official Olympic website to see who has won gold in the past and who you should be watching at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August!
- Build Your Own Boat: It won’t look like the ones Joe and his teammates used, but see if you can make this DIY soap-powered boat.
- Great Moments in Sports: If you or your parents have a favorite sporting moment, share them. Grab Mom or Dad’s laptop to watch it again on YouTube! The Miracle on Ice? Mary Lou Retton’s perfect tens? Michael Phelps collecting gold? The 2004 Red Sox? Brandi Chastain and the 1999 women’s World Cup? Talk about why these moments matter and why we remember them long after the competition is over.
- Host Your Own Olympic Games: Choose your favorite indoor or outdoor games (tag, hide-and-seek, relay races, basketball, soccer, or any other activity you love) and compete against other book club members. Keep score to see who comes out on top, and create homemade medals or olive leaf crowns for the winners!
- Try a Rowing Machine: Want to see just how hard it is to row like the Boys in the Boat? If you have access to a local gym, head over and try out their rowing machine. After everyone practices on the machine, have a group race and see who wins. (These kids have the hang of it!)
What to Read Next
Can’t get enough of the 1936 Olympics and the magic of The Boys in the Boat? Try these other titles:
A middle grade exploration of the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi regime. A fantastic supplement to The Boys in the Boat, young readers will learn everything they want to know about what led to Berlin being chosen as the venue of these Olympic Games, and the aftermath.
Louis Zamperini also competed at the 1936 Olympics, finishing eighth in the 5000-meter race. His Olympic quest may not have had the glorious ending of the rowing team, but his life after Olympic training showed just how tough he really was.
A middle grade biography about Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field legend who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics and publicly shattered Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
Let us know what you think of The Boys in the Boat and share your own ideas for Book Club for Kids in the comments below!