Picture Book Review: Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born by Gene Barretta, Illustrated by Frank Morrison

My memories of Muhammad Ali are not from actual fights but from his interviews, especially with Howard Cosell on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.  By the time I was born, Ali’s prime boxing days were behind him.  Late in his career he continued to draw huge crowds to celebrity bouts and even a foray into the WWWF wrestling ring.  Of course, who can ever forget the image of Ali at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, hands visibly shaking from the Parkinson’s disease that would claim his life twenty years later, standing atop the olympic ramp as the last keeper of the flame to light the fire at the opening ceremony (Youtube video).  Today’s students may not recognize the man who redefined sports celebrity in the 1960s to become an American sports icon.  Gene Barretta’s new autobiographical picture book Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born shows readers a glimpse of Ali in his prime as well as the life changing moment in his youth that lead him to the boxing ring.

I can’t begin to talk about the book without beginning with the paintings.  Only one word does them justice:  stunning.  The first few pages are paintings of Ali in his prime against Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Leon Spinks.  When I saw these pages I was immediately reminded of the paintings of George Bellows whose paintings of boxing and wrestling matches at the turn of the 21st century captured the motion and intensity of the combatants like no other artist before him. More information about George Bellows and his work can be found here.

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Frank Morrison’s paintings in this beautiful picture book want to dance off the page.  Each painting swirls in motion to draw the reader into the events on the page.

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After seeing Ali in some of his greatest fights, the reader is then taken back to Louisville, Kentucky in 1954 where a young man named Cassius Clay shows the same competitive drive that would become a defining trait throughout his life.  Readers are introduced to the reality of Southern segregation as Cassius is visiting a home show for the local black merchants and craftsman who are not allowed to sell their wares at the white bazaars.  While there, Cassius’ bike is stolen.  His instinct is to fight, but he chooses to find a police officer instead. When Cassius explains his desire to find and fight the thief, Officer Martin invites Cassius to his local gym where he trains boxers.  Cassius chooses to channel his anger in the boxing ring.  The latter part of the book shows Ali’s metamorphosis from a skinny kid in Louisville to an Olympic Gold Medalist and finally to a World Heavyweight Champion.

The last two pages provide a timeline and give a more detailed description of Ali’s life, his conversion to Islam, the backlash he endured due to his political views, and his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in 1984.  While it is true that Muhammad Ali can be considered a controversial figure in American history (he supported segregation in the 1960s due to his association with the Nation of Islam as well as his treatment by whites in youth), Ali’s later life was filled with philanthropic activities and projects that supported humanitarian relief efforts around the world.

This volume is perfect for ages 7-10 as an introduction to an important figure in American sports and cultural history.  For many Americans, Muhammad Ali, along with perhaps Kareem Abdul Jabbar, was the first prominent Muslim we ever knew.  Not only will this volume serve to further diversify collections, it can be a great tool to teach character traits such as perseverance, courage, and self-discipline.  Highly Recommended.

Additional Resources

25 of the best photos of the legendary boxer, courtesy of The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/gallery/2014/oct/30/muhammad-ali-25-best-photographs-cassius-clay-legendary-boxer

The Outsized Life of Muhammad Ali, courtesy of The New Yorker:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-outsized-life-of-muhammad-ali

Why Muhammad Ali Matters to Everyone, courtesy of Time:

http://time.com/3646214/muhammad-ali-dead-obituary/

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