12 Nonfiction Titles About Olympic Athletes for Young Readers of All Ages

Offering a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs of Olympic athletes, these books encourage readers to believe that their own bodies and minds can achieve amazing things.

© Steffi Walthall (The Story of Simone Biles, Callisto Kids)

The world’s eyes will be on Paris later this year, when the 2024 Summer Olympics take place from July 26 to August 11, followed by the Paralympics from August 28 to September 8. Athletes will compete in 32 sports for the chance to showcase their talent and hard work to the world, and maybe bring home a medal.

These 12 books for young readers of all ages delve into the lives of Olympic athletes, offering a glimpse into the challenges they face and the triumphs achieved on their journey to greatness. The stories capture the hearts of athletes who overcame obstacles, inspiring young readers to pursue their dreams with boundless passion. After all, this passion—which drives the athletes’ persistence, hard work, and an unwavering belief in themselves—is what makes the Olympics possible.

These narratives reflect the resilience of the trailblazing women of the inaugural U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team, the unyielding soccer star Abby Wambach, and the odyssey of refugee-turned-swimmer Yusra Mardini. The titles celebrate the lives of athletes who faced obstacles, encouraging readers to believe that their own bodies and minds can achieve amazing things.


Picture Books

ABERY, Julie. Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory. illus. by Chris Sasaki. Kids Can. 2021. ISBN 9781525300318.
K-Gr 3–Dive into this heartwarming tale in which Coach Sakamoto’s steadfast devotion transforms an unlikely group into a victorious swim team, emphasizing the values of teamwork and determination. Gentle rhyming couplets give an engaging rhythm to this unique story, while the preface and author’s note provide additional insights. The bright, digitally snipped images, with a painterly quality, offer diverse perspectives that enrich the visual narrative of this uplifting journey.

CHAFFEE, Kim. Courage in Her Cleats: The Story of Soccer Star Abby Wambach. illus. by Alexandra Badiu. Page Street. 2023. ISBN 9781645676294.
Gr 2-4–The inspiring story of Abby Wambach, a soccer legend whose drive and leadership skills made her an icon on and off the field. The vivid, animation-style illustrations capture the dynamism of soccer gameplay. This lively celebration of athleticism and perseverance, enriched with playful onomatopoeia from the text, is recommended for an engaging read-aloud experience.

CLARK, Zion & James S. Hirsch. Zion Unmatched. Candlewick. 2021. ISBN 9781536224184.
Gr 2-4–This picture book unfolds like a dynamic scrapbook, seamlessly blending photography, engrossing stories, and empowering quotes. The pages vividly chronicle wheelchair racer and wrestler Zion Clark’s Olympic journey, showcasing not only his remarkable athleticism but also the resilience encapsulated by the quote “Tell me something I can’t do, and I will do it or die trying.” Readers will feel inspired by Clark’s experience.

FARUQI, Reem. Swimming Toward a Dream: Yusra Mardini’s Incredible Journey from Refugee to Olympic Swimmer. illus. by Asma Enayeh. Page Street. 2023. ISBN 9781645679837.
PreS-Gr 3–The compelling story of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee turned Olympic swimmer. From her familiar pool in Damascus to swimming in the waters of the Aegean Sea alongside her refugee boat to the 2016 Olympic pool in Rio de Janeiro, this book captures the strength of the human spirit displayed in one of the most captivating stories of an Olympian. Mardini’s impact sends ripples beyond the pool, making her story an inspiring text to share.

KERRIGAN, Nancy & Ryan G. Van Cleave. Stronger Than She Thinks. illus. by Arief Putra. Bushel & Peck. 2023. ISBN 9781638192077.
PreS-Gr 2–Nancy Kerrigan’s picture book memoir reflects on her inner strength during the earliest moments of her figure skating career. The movement of the text echoes the active illustrations, including her toe loops, salchows, and lutzs. Straightforward inspiration for very young audiences.

MURPHY, Frank & Surya Bonaly. Fearless Heart: An Illustrated Biography of Surya Bonaly. illus. by Anastasia Magloire Williams. Triumph Bks. 2022. ISBN 9781629379340.
K-Gr 3–Defying convention, Bonaly left an iconic mark on the sport of figure skating with her trademark backflip on ice in the 1998 Olympics. In this biography, Bonaly’s indomitable figure skating career takes center stage, showcasing her strength. The narrative invites readers to revel in the joy of her fearless heart, portrayed through playful text and sparkling illustrations of her costumes. A compelling tribute to a trailblazing athlete.


Chapter Books

BURK, Rachelle. The Story of Simone Biles: A Biography for New Readers. illus. by Steffi Walthall. Callisto Kids. 2020. ISBN 9781647397753.
Gr 2-5–This early chapter book biography unveils the remarkable story of gymnastics legend Simone Biles, who stands at just 4 feet 8 inches. The interactive text is enriched with bold vocabulary, myth and fact highlights, maps, discussion questions, and time lines, offering readers a dynamic reading experience. Biles’s profound impact on sports and the Olympics is skillfully portrayed, emphasizing her strong focus and hard work.

Middle Grade

LOWE, Chaunté. Boundless. Scholastic Focus. 2023. ISBN 9781338741520.
Gr 5-7–Chaunté Lowe’s memoir relates the story of her young life and concludes with the 2004 Olympic trials where she showcases perseverance, passion, and the pursuit of excellence. Despite instability in her early life, Lowe clung to her dream of becoming an Olympian, fueled by familial and community support. In the face of internal and external battles, her inspiration from watching Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo Jo) in the 1988 Olympics became a driving force, shaping a narrative of triumph over adversity.

SUNDQUIST, Josh. Just Don’t Fall (Adapted for Young Readers): A Hilariously True Story of Childhood Cancer and Olympic Greatness. Viking. 2023. ISBN 9780593621998.
Gr 5-8–Sundquist’s memoir weaves humor and inspiration, recounting his journey from childhood cancer survivor to Paralympic ski racer. The author’s infectious wit shines through the very readable narrative as he navigates his medical challenges while embracing dedication and positivity. This book is the inspiration for the Apple TV show Best Foot Forward .


Young Adult

BROWN, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics. adapt. by Gregory Mone. Viking. 2015. ISBN 9780451475923.
Gr 8 Up–This adaptation of the adult title The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics details the triumphs and challenges of a University of Washington crew team striving for gold at the 1936 Olympics. The story centers on underdog Joe Rantz, who was an untrained rower, and his development in this unique sport. Short, digestible chapters are interspersed with engaging black-and-white photographs. This text inspired the 2023 film of the same name.

MARANISS, Andrew. Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team. Viking. 2022. ISBN 9780593351246.
Gr 8 Up–This book chronicles the groundbreaking story of the first U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team, showcasing the determination of the athletes who paved the way for future generations. Maraniss includes the politics of the time and how they directly affected these athletes. Race, gender, and culture are all at play in this inspirational story of leaping over boundaries.

SMITH, Tommie, Derrick Barnes & Dawud Anyabwile. Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice. Norton. 2022. ISBN 9781324003908.
Gr 8 Up–This moving graphic novel memoir offers a firsthand account of Tommie Smith’s iconic fist raising at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the enduring fight for justice. The story intertwines growing up Black in America with prominent events of civil rights and Smith’s own struggles. Not just for fans of sports, this book is a powerful story of resilience and resistance told through black-and-white art.

Ellen Williams is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a former children’s librarian.

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