Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born, written by Gene Barretta and illustrated by Frank Morrison has a fantastic narrative structure that helps young readers begin to understand the historic importance of Ali by focusing on the childhood incident that lead him to the boxing ring and a future as the People's Champion. Morrison's oil illustrations are painterly and full of energy and action.
Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born begins powerfully with a lone punching bag in an empty gym (and an explanation for young readers regarding Ali's name change) and ends with an empty boxing ring. Three two-page spreads begin the narrative, giving details of Ali's famous matches with Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Leon Spinks and including his most famous quotes. Then the narrative jumps back to 1954 where twelve-year-old Cassius Clay has his brand-new bicycle stolen while visiting the Louisville Home Show for black merchants. This life experience makes up the bulk of Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born and once you know the story and amazing coincidence it's easy to understand why. Seeing his distress at having his bike stolen, a woman on the street tells Clay to go back into the building to the basement and ask for Officer Joe Martin. After hearing Clay's story, Martin tells him he'd better learn to fight before he tries to whup the bike thief. Columbia Gym becomes Clay's second home, Officer Martin his trainer. Baretta captures Clay's bravado, confidence and determination as a young man, showing him running alongside his school bus and practicing his reflexes by having his brother Rudy throw rocks at him.
The penultimate page features Ali's quote (all of his quotes are in bold caps), "DON'T QUIT. SUFFER NOW AND LIVE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE AS A CHAMPION," along with his gold medal win at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The final page shows Ali's in a suit, pen and paper in his hand, the People's Champion. Barretta tells readers that Ali fought against religious and racial discrimination, striving to be a positive role model for them. Ali believed, "I HAD TO PROVE YOU COULD BE A NEW KIND OF BLACK MAN. I HAD TO SHOW THE WORLD." I think it's important for young readers to read this quote and think (and talk) about it. Many don't realize that, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended public segregation and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, there were still deeply inaccurate, prejudicial, beliefs about African Americans held by many. And there still are. Barretta includes two pages of biographical backmatter and a page with a bibliography, suggested reading and websites. Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born is a great introduction to a great man that should inspire readers to want to learn more.
Source: Review Copy