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Read Your Way to Rio! Your Family’s Summer Olympics Primer

by Tom Burns

Illustration: Elizabeth Graeber

There’s something really wonderful about watching the Olympics with your kids. While it’s always fun to watch competition at that level, sharing those athletic accomplishments with a younger generation always feels like — pardon the pun — a passing of the torch. Like you’re introducing your child to something special, telling them, “I need to show you what astonishing things human beings can do.”

The 2016 Summer Olympics are taking place in Rio de Janeiro, so if you want to start getting your kid excited for the summer games — they start on August 5 — here are some excellent books about Olympians and the Olympics itself that should definitely get them interested in seeing who’s coming home with the gold this year.

  • What Are the Summer Olympics?

    by Gail Herman, illustrated Stephen Marchesi and Kevin McVeigh

    In my experience, kids love the “What Was…?” series, a popular line of nonfiction history titles aimed at middle-grade readers. (There’s also a “Who Was…?” series focused on biographies.) My daughter affectionately refers to them as the “Big Head Books,” because their covers always feature large-headed caricatures of their subjects. This volume focuses on the history of the Summer Olympics, tracing them all the way from Ancient Greece to Rio de Janeiro. A great introduction to the summer games for your growing independent reader.
    Ages 8 – 12

  • G Is for Gold Medal: An Olympics Alphabet

    by Brad Herzog, illustrated by Doug Bowles

    You can find an alphabet book about almost anything, but this is a surprisingly informative ABC primer on the history of the Olympics. Each letter is accompanied by an interesting fact about the games. Eager letter-loving readers will learn about the significance of the Olympic rings, notable Olympians, and accounts of some of the games’ most memorable record-breaking moments, among other fun details.
    Ages 6 - 9

  • Magic Tree House: Hour of the Olympics

    by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca

    Forget Doc Brown and Marty McFly. If you’re a kid, the two most famous time-travelers in the world are Jack and Annie, the stars of Mary Pope Osborne’s hugely popular Magic Tree House series. And, since Jack and Annie have introduced kids to so many major historical events, why should the Olympics be any different? In this volume, Osborne has her two heroes travel back to Ancient Greece to witness the First Olympics, allowing your kids to learn about the origin of the games AND experience a fun adventure with a time-warped treehouse. That’s win-win.
    Ages 6 - 9

  • Olympig!: The Triumphant Story of an Underdog

    by Victoria Jamieson

    This hysterical picture book — from the creator of the fantastic graphic novel Roller Girl — is a perfect title if you have a little Olympic hopeful in your house who’s still struggling to find their sport. Boomer the Pig has high hopes for the annual Animal Olympics, but, in event after event, he just can’t seem to bring home the gold. But it never fazes Boomer, who happily sees every loss as an opportunity to develop even more skills for the next competition. A very funny read that holds an important message about the power of unwavering optimism.
    Ages 5 - 8

  • Rio de Janeiro: A 3D Keepsake Cityscape

    by Trisha Krauss

    Your kids might already have certain athletes or sports they’re looking forward to seeing in the Summer Games (I will admit to a weakness for Olympic Badminton), but how much do they know about where the Olympics are actually being held this year? If you really want to show off the larger-than-life appeal of Rio de Janeiro, you should introduce them to this very cool pop-up title that finds ways to make some of Rio’s most famous sights jump off the page. The entire book is actually just one ingenious panoramic spread (folded into many pages), which, when unfurled, stretches to over five feet long!
    Ages 4 - 7

  • Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn't Sit Still

    by Karlin Gray, illustrated by Christine Davenier

    For a certain generation of parents, it’s hard to think of Olympic gymnastics without thinking of Nadia Comaneci. This picture book biography tells the story of that miniature Romanian powerhouse, painting her life story as one of perseverance that pays off. We’re introduced to Nadia as a bubbly young girl who simply refuses to stop moving — she practically bounces off the walls — until her mother signs her up for gymnastics, and she finds herself learning to become a champion from her iconic coach Bela Karolyi. It’s an idealized, inspirational story that might inspire your child to pay closer attention to the 2016 gymnastic competitions.
    Ages 6 - 9

  • Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman

    by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz

    The story of Olympian Wilma Rudolph is simply amazing. Born in 1940 in the American South, this powerful African-American runner overcame prejudice and physical infirmities — she contracted polio in her youth — to win a spot in the 1960 Olympic Games. And she didn’t just qualify for the games. She became the first woman ever to win three gold medals during a single Olympics. Krull masterfully walks readers through Wilma’s life story, while Caldecott winner Diaz paints the runner in such a beautiful cubist style that every page feels like it should be hanging in a museum. A gorgeous account of a fascinating athlete.
    Ages 4 - 7

  • Breakaway: Beyond the Goal

    by Alex Morgan

    Modern soccer legend and Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan has her own series of middle-grade novels (titled “The Kicks”), but this book tells Morgan’s own fascinating, true-life story. In this autobiography targeted at younger readers, Morgan recounts her path to becoming a world-class soccer player and an Olympic athlete, describing, in engaging language, the lessons she learned along the way. The end result is a really wonderful discussion about what it means to be competitive and how important it is to have a strong emotional support network in your life. If your kid aspires to be a professional athlete one day, this is a must-read.
    Ages 12+

  • The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team's Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics

    by Daniel James Brown

    You may have already heard of this popular nonfiction title — it’s become a bestseller and a book club staple — but you may not know that there is also a young reader adaptation of The Boys in the Boat as well. And that’s a good thing because your middle-school and older readers will love this riveting true story about a rowing team made up of middle-class American college students that defeated higher-ranked competitors from around the world and found themselves facing Adolf Hitler’s own German rowing team during the 1936 Olympics. It’s the kind of story that you can’t believe is actually true — it reads like a sports movie — but Brown’s narrative is packed with personal details and first-hand accounts that make the history come alive. I can’t think of a better book to help young readers better understand both the global and personal impact of the Olympic Games.
    Ages 10 +

Are you looking forward to watching the Olympics with your family? Let us know what your favorite sports and events are in the comments below!

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