One of the cool things about freelancing is that I sometimes get an assignment to write on a topic about which I know nothing. Some of you may remember the book about commercial fishing I wrote a few years ago. (And some of you gave me invaluable feedback—gracias.) That was an intensive research project, let me tell you. My current project is a lot easier: I’m writing a very short hi-lo book on Olympic athletes.
In the educational publishing industry, “hi-lo” means high interest, low reading level. Older kids who don’t read well need reading material that doesn’t frustrate them but holds their interest. No 4th or 8th or 10th grader wants to read about Dick and Jane and Spot. But they dig sports.
Granted, on my personal list of interests, sports rank just below swine herding, but I can muster up a little enthusiasm when the occasion calls for it. I did turn on the TV and watch Michael Phelps blow everyone else out of the water. And I’ve heard of a number of other Olympians. Plus, I have a library card. So I’m all set to write about athletes.
The first question was, which athletes? After some wrangling with my editor, I finally settled on: Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michelle Kwan, Karnam Malleswari, Apolo Ohno, and Shaun White.
Next question: what to say about these people?
Because I don’t really care about sports, I’m far more fascinated by the cultural and political issues that have often surrounded the Games and the athletes. African-American athlete Jesse Owens, for example, is remembered today not because he won a bunch of medals in track and field in Berlin, 1936, but because he wiped up the track with Hitler’s Aryan runners.
The development of children into world-class athletes also makes for gripping stories. I learned today that speed skating phenom Apolo Ohno displayed such talent that a coach went to great lengths to get him admitted to an elite training school at age 13, even though the school did not take youngsters under 15. Problem: Apolo, who had been running with gang boys and staying out nights, didn’t want to go. His father dropped him off at SeaTac airport and drove away, thinking the boy would get on a flight to New York. Apolo phoned one of his homeboys to come pick him up. He was on the loose for days or weeks before finally showing up at Dad’s house again.
You would think that after those shenanigans, the coach and the elite skating school would want nothing to do with Apolo. You might think that Apolo’s dad would wonder if forcing his son into intensive training in his early teens was the right thing to do. In fact, the school and coach still took him. Dad got on the plane and escorted him to New York. And a few years later, Apolo skated gold while thousands and thousands of fans chanted his name. Tell me, friends, did his dad do right?
Another thing I wonder is how authors decide which athletes to feature in their books. I picked up one called The Olympics: Unforgettable Moments of the Games. I read through the 1988 and 1992 chapters, looking for info about Jackie Joyner-Kersee, regarded by many as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. Nada. How could the author leave her out?
Who would you put in a book?