The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon

Written by Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee Illustrated by Susanna Chapman To be published in 2017 by Compendium Grades K-5 Book Review   “Girls can’t run marathons, don’t you know that?…Good girls don’t run. You’ll hurt yourself!” What does it take to follow your heart, rather than bend towards the fears of others? From the […]

Written by Frances Poletti and Kristina Screen shot 2017-04-23 at 2.52.46 PMYee

Illustrated by Susanna Chapman

To be published in 2017 by Compendium

Grades K-5

Book Review


“Girls can’t run marathons, don’t you know that?…Good girls don’t run. You’ll hurt yourself!” What does it take to follow your heart, rather than bend towards the fears of others? From the time she was a young girl, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb loved to run. After watching the Boston Marathon with her father, she knew she had to run the race even if her family thought such an idea was strange, silly, and frankly a “mighty odd hobby for a girl.”  In 1966, Bobbi applied to run in the Boston Marathon only to find her application rejected based on the ruling that women could not run the marathon for fear that they would injure themselves. Steadfast in her determination, on marathon day she disguised herself in her brother’s Bermuda shorts and hid her long hair under a hooded sweatshirt, becoming the first woman to run the famed race. Written by Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee, in collaboration with Bobbi Gibb, The Girl Who Ran is a picture book biography that explains the life events leading up to Bobbi’s rule-breaking participation in the Boston Marathon. Susanna Chapman’s energetic illustrations sweep across the pages. A swirling red line follows Bobbi in each illustration, capturing the fluidity of running and acting as a visual reminder of Bobbi’s fiery spirit. Ideal for an interactive read aloud, The Girl Who Ran offers opportunities for students to engage in critical literacy practices about the sports culture of the time as well as today.  This can be enhanced through the back matter which provides expository information about Bobbi Gibb and a timeline of the history of the Boston Marathon, including when Title IX legislation was signed into law. The book also serves as a bridge for students’ out-of-school interests on the track, sports field, or playground. Teachers will find that they can leverage this story to serve as a mentor text for student writing about the things they are passionate about that may not always be accepted by others.

Teaching Invitations

Visual Literacy: Looking Closely at Colors and Lines. The cover of The Girl Who Ran shows Bobbi Gibb under an illuminated red and orange skyscape, inviting readers to follow those colors throughout the text. As you read across the pages, students are sure to be captivated by the swirling red and orange lines that trail Bobbi every time she is running. Discuss with students Susanna Chapman’s choice to use red and orange swirling lines throughout the text. What might those colors signify? What effect would other colors have had? What effect do the swirling lines have? How would the reading experience have been different if those lines were absent from the text? Invite students to try Chapman’s technique in the own illustrations by indicating movement through the use of swirling lines.

Who Were Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer Text Set. The first woman to run the Boston Marathon was Bobbi Gibb. The first officially registered woman to run the race was Katherine Switzer. In 2017, fifty years after her first Boston Marathon, Katherine Switzer ran the race again at 70 years old. Using the links below in Further Investigations, research these pioneering women to learn more about who they are and how they have impacted the history of women’s running.  Invite students to consider the obstacles these women faced in order to follow the pursuit of their dreams. Juxtapose the ways in which The Girl Who Ran shows men supporting Bobbi Gibb during the race, while New York Times photos show Katherine Switzer physically being grabbed by an official trying to get her off the marathon course.

Dialogue and Page Layout. Rather than use speech bubbles, Chapman’s illustrations include lines of dialogue floating across the pages in handwritten, capitalized print to capture the attention of readers. Discuss this choice and whether students find it effective as an illustration technique. Further discuss why select lines of dialogue were chosen while others are represented in quotes as part of the body of the text. What is significant about the lines of dialogue selected to float across the pages? Invite students to try this technique in their own picture book making for lines of dialogue that are especially significant or that represent particular points of view. It should be noted that while sources for the dialogue are not provided, Bobbi Gibb was a collaborator on the book project adding reliability to the dialogue provided.

Run, Then Write. The Girl Who Ran inspires the feeling of running, especially through the energetic and colorful illustrations and the “wind in the fire” metaphor found throughout the text. Invite students to run and then to use that experience to describe in their own words the feeling of running. Encourage students to engage in other movements of their choice like cartwheels, handstands, monkey bar swinging, jump roping, and obstacle course running using those physical experiences as a catalyst for writing. Support students to think about how to use words to describe their physical movements, their breath, heart rate, and what they see, hear, smell, and feel as they move.   Recruit your students across the school year to be on the lookout for other characters they encounter that also love to run.

Biographies of Pioneering Women Text Set. Gather books about women that have broken barriers in their fields as a class text set. Invite students to research the women’s lives, accomplishments, and obstacles along the way. At The Classroom Bookshelf, we have written about many such titles including: Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors (Elizabeth Blackwell),  Me…Jane and The Watcher(Jane Goodall), Night Flight (Amelia Earhart), Annie and Helen and Helen’s Big World (Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan), Life in the Ocean (Sylvia Earle), Miss Moore Thought Otherwise (Anne Carroll Moore),Queen of the Falls (Annie Edson Taylor), Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World, Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America’s Heart  and Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton.

Sports-Based Text Set. Not just for athletes, sports-based texts can help develop classroom literacies. Gather a variety of sports-based texts to engage students in some of their everyday interests and to apply a critical literacy lens to sports culture. Encourage conversations about what motivates us as individuals as well as conversations about how we can read and analyze the ways sports-stories sometimes reflect and amplify stereotypes. Use The Girl Who Ran as an example of how sports-stories can defy stereotypes and incredible odds, including books such as Growing Up Pedro, by Matt Tavares; Testing the Ice, by Sharon Robinson; and The William Hoy Story, by Nancy Churnin. You might construct a text set about female athletes, including books such as Wilma Unlimited, by Kathleen Krull; Nothing but Trouble, by Sue Stauffacher; The Kid from Diamond Street, by Audrey Vernick; Mermaid Queen, by Shana Corey; and Babe Conquers the World, by Rich Wallace.

Marathon Preparation. What does it really take to run a marathon? How should one prepare and train for it? What should one expect during the race? What happens to your body immediately after it? Engage students in an inquiry about running marathons. Brainstorm a list of research questions to pursue, such as the ones listed above, and have students conduct research in a variety of ways. They might begin by reading some of the books recommended in Further Explorations below, or they might look for articles and informational websites. Have them interview family and community members who have run marathons and compare the interview answers with the research they collected from texts. Have students compare and contrast famous marathon courses (the Boston Marathon course map is listed below in Further Explorations), and play some news and video clips of marathon events and finishes to encourage students to think what kind of preparation can be applied to any marathon, and what kind should be tailored to specific races. If there is a local race occurring soon, encourage your students to volunteer at it.

Critical Literacy

Barriers Broken and Remaining for Girls. In 1967, Bobbi Gibb broke a barrier for female runners. Today, over 12,000 women run the Boston Marathon every year. Discuss as a class the barriers that have been broken by women as well as the barriers that remain for women and girls still today, such as the 20% gender pay gap. Participate as a class in the HerStory Campaign by participating in the Stand up for Girls yearly event which corresponds with the International Day of the Girl. Also consider following the Lean In movement whose mission is to empower women to achieve their ambitions or Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls which advocates for girls to change the world by being themselves.

Who Can Run Marathons? – At first, students may be inclined to say that anyone can run a marathon. Follow up this question with more specific questions: How old should one be? What health considerations should the runner think about? Should physically challenged  athletes only participate in special races, such as the wheelchair or vision impaired races? Share examples of runners like Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer who “broke the mold” or other athletes such as Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who biked 400 miles around Ghana with just one healthy leg, and William Hoy, the deaf Major Leaguer who helped introduce hand signals to baseball.

Further Investigations

Online Resources

“A Run of One’s Own” by Bobbi Gibb

ESPN Article from 2016 on Bobbi Gibbs

New York Times article from 2017 on Katherine Switzer

Katherine Switzer Marathon Woman

Boston Marathon Course Map

HerStory Campaign

Lean In Site

Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls


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