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Read Your Way to Tokyo! A Summer Games Primer

by Tom Burns

summer-olympics-kids-books
Photo credit: RichVintage, E+ Collection/Getty Images

There’s something really wonderful about watching the Summer Games with your kids. While it’s always fun to watch the 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 2021 Summer Games are taking place in Tokyo, so if you want to start getting your kid excited for the events in swimming, gymnastics, track, and more — they start on July 23 — here are some excellent books about the athletes and the big event itself that should definitely get them interested in seeing who’s coming home with the gold this year.

  • When I Grow Up - Sports Heroes

    by DK

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    When watching all your favorite athletes competing at such a high level, it can be hard to imagine that they were little kids once too. What was Usain Bolt like before becoming a super sprinter or Simone Biles when she first started gymnastics? This fun board book teaches your future athlete that you can be anything you want to be when you grow up if you work hard and follow your dreams.
    (Ages 2 – 5)

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  • DK Reader Level 1: Welcome to Japan

    by DK

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    It’s easy to get swept up in all the competitions, but another great part of this global event is getting to learn all about the host country. DK’s Welcome to Japan is a great introduction to what makes Japan and its culture so interesting and unique. With engaging text and beautiful photographs, little readers will learn all about Japanese calligraphy, cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, and so much more!
    (Ages 3 – 5)

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  • Olympig!: The Triumphant Story of an Underdog

    by Victoria Jamieson

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    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)

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  • Long-Armed Ludy and the First Women's Olympics

    by Jean L. S. Patrick, illustrated by Adam Gustavson

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    This book tells the story of little-known athlete Lucile “Ludy” Godbold. In the early 1920s, Ludy qualified for the first Women’s Olympics in shot put, but she had no money to get to France for the event. After her college raises funds to help her compete, Lundy clobbers the world record and brings home the gold medal! This book shows that with perseverance and a fantastic support system, anything is possible.
    (Ages 6 – 9)

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  • Magic Tree House: Hour of the Olympics

    by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca

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    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 a win-win.
    (Ages 6 – 9)

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  • My Book of Gymnastics

    by DK

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    Your kids will flip for this book on gymnastics! With photographs and detailed illustrations, they’ll discover different events like the vault, pommel horse, and rings, as well as all the daring moves that wow the judges (and viewers)!
    (Ages 6 – 9)

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  • What Are the Summer Olympics?

    by Gail Herman, illustrated Stephen Marchesi and Kevin McVeigh

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    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 back to Ancient Greece. A great introduction to the summer games for your growing independent reader.
    (Ages 8 – 12)

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  • Trailblazers: Simone Biles

    by Sally J. Morgan

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    As the reigning world and Olympic champion in gymnastics, Simone Biles' story is one worth knowing. Winning four Olympic gold medals at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Biles is a sports icon in her own right. But the road to becoming an elite gymnast wasn't easy. Trailblazers: Simone Biles masterfully outlines Biles’ life, trials, and successes in a powerful way. Her story of charisma, courage, and confidence is sure to inspire young readers to blaze their own path to greatness.
    (Ages 8 – 12)

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  • Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics

    by John Feinstein

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    In the latest book in The Sports Beat series, teen sports reporter Susan Carol competes as a swimmer in the Olympic games. It's a great opportunity, but between jealous friendships, eager sponsors, and the media pressure, it seems like the biggest challenges Susan will face are outside the pool. Kids will want to dive headfirst into this exciting sports mystery.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • 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

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    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 more enjoyable book to help young readers better understand both the global and personal impact of the Olympic Games.
    (Ages 10+)

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2021.