By Courtney Runn
There are few better books to teach children about the importance of teamwork, resilience, and discipline than the true-life stories of legendary Olympians. Whether you’re gearing up for two weeks of cheering on your country or basking in the inspiration afterwards, we curated a list of picture books celebrating unforgettable Olympic moments and exploring the history of the Games. Learn about athletes who broke racial barriers, shattered records, and went on to extraordinary lives of service post-retirement. These inspiring picture books will have your little ones dreaming big!
Written in free verse, Touch the Sky shares the story of Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics. As a young girl in Georgia in the 1930s, Alice and her friends created their own crossbar to practice the high jump when she was excluded from competing with the boys. After finding success as a jumper, Alice left behind her life of picking cotton and fruit to support her family, heading out to compete around the country. She went on to compete in the 1948 London Olympic Games, where she broke records and blazed a path for black women.
Little readers with lots of energy will quickly relate to feisty Nadia, who’s always finding a new tree to climb and accidentally getting in trouble. To channel her boundless energy, Nadia’s mom signed her up for gymnastics—a decision that would eventually lead to Olympic history! The story follows the Romanian gymnast’s childhood and her legendary first Olympic Games in 1976, where she became the first to earn a perfect score and the youngest gymnast to win a gold medal. With bright watercolor illustrations, this story springs off the page and is sure to delight any aspiring gymnasts.
As the first Native American to win a gold medal, Jim Thorpe is remembered for his groundbreaking Olympic feats and his athletic versatility—he played football, baseball, and basketball professionally. This touching biography follows Jim’s difficult childhood and the many obstacles he faced on his path to victory. Written and illustrated by Native Americans, this book uses the terminology, “American Indian,” that was used during Thorpe’s life, opening an opportunity to discuss the shifting use and meaning of words and their power in human experience.
Olympian sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce shares her story of becoming one of the fastest women in the world. As a child, Shelly-Ann ran everywhere and soon began competing against other girls—and winning! With the support of her community, she earned a spot on the Jamaican Olympic team and realized her success embodied a promise she made to herself and her family to always be herself and run to be free. Bonus: Rhyming patterns make for a literacy-boosting read!
This sweet story written by Olympian Laurie Hernandez follows a little girl taking her first gymnastics class. Zoe can’t wait to fly through the air like the birds outside her window until she falls off the balance beam, bruising her body and pride. She never wants to get back on the beam, but her family reminds her that making mistakes is part of learning. This book is a great way to talk with your kids about failure in sports—and the importance of getting back up to try again! (A life lesson that’s key in learning to read, too.)
Award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford introduces young readers to Jesse Owens in this free-verse story that follows the track-and-field icon’s Olympic career. With accompanying pastel illustrations, the book powerfully depicts Owens’ journey at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics and the obstacles he faced as a black athlete in the early 20th century. The end of the book includes a brief biography of Owens, with additional historical information about Nazi Germany at the time of the Berlin Games and segregation in the U.S.
Note: This book includes multiple references to Hitler, the racism Owens faced as a black athlete, and two pages with depictions of concentration camps. While none of the images or descriptions are graphic, these are important topics to note before reading with younger readers and could be an excellent way to spark conversations with your kids as you read about this legendary athlete.
Your kids will love diving into the impressive life of Duke Kahanamoku through Ellie Crowe’s words and Richard Waldrep’s immersive illustrations. An Olympic swimmer and the “Father of Modern Surfing,” Kahanamoku was the first Hawaiian to compete in the Olympics and went on to win five medals after his first Games in 1912 in Stockholm. The swimmer popularized the Hawaiian sport of surfing and broke segregation barriers through his athletic feats. Though its length is better suited for older readers, the book’s bright illustrations will attract all ages.
A recent release, this cheerfully illustrated story also takes readers to Hawaii for the little-known history of a swim coach who led his team to Olympic gold. After noticing the children of sugar plantation workers swimming in the nearby irrigation ditches, a local science teacher takes them under his wing to coach them. Written in spare rhyme, this inspiring story captures the impact we can have on each other.
“No one really knows how Ludy’s arms got so long,” begins Long-Armed Ludy, but they took her to the first Women’s Olympics in 1922 in Paris, France. The story takes readers along Ludy’s journey to compete in the shot put event with detailed illustrations and charming storytelling. Don’t miss this inspiring story of a little-known piece of Olympic history.
A New Voices Award winner, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds shares the inspiring story of Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win the James E. Sullivan Award for being the most outstanding amataeur athlete in the country. As a boy, Sammy’s first introduction to swimming was watching children at the white-only pool from the other side of the fence. As an Asian American, he was only allowed to enter the pool on Wednesdays. This early childhood experience sparked his desire to not only swim like the other kids, but go on to become an Olympian.
While Sammy experienced discrimination at school, he found a home in diving and competed in his first Olympics in 1948 at age 28, where he won a gold medal after earning a perfect score. This powerful story will inspire the Olympic hopefuls in your life and start important conversations about discrimination.
Flying High shares the inspiring story of Simone Biles with a rhyming word pattern, starting with her childhood in foster care and following her rise to gymnastics legend. The book highlights the obstacles in her path—noting the times she didn’t make a team or messed up her routine—alongside her success, providing a great opportunity to talk about the importance of determination and not letting failures or challenges stop you from trying again.
Wilma Rudolph was a fighter from birth. Born at just over four pounds, Wilma was prone to illness throughout her childhood, eventually contracting scarlet fever and polio at the age of five—a devastating prognosis for an energetic young girl. But Wilma didn’t stop moving, eventually returning to school after learning to walk with a brace. Wilma’s miraculous recovery led her to the Olympic Games, where she ran and medaled in the 1960 Games in Rome.
At 18, Muhammad Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics, launching his legendary boxing career. In this Kirkus-starred book, author Jonah Winter employs punchy typography and grandiose storytelling to introduce young readers to The Greatest and his historic life.
G is for Gold Medal is the perfect way to practice the alphabet while learning about the history and traditions of the Olympics. Each letter is accompanied by bright, full-page illustrations and stories. Young listeners will enjoy practicing letters and exploring the pictures, while the wordier stories are perfect for older kids wanting to learn more about the Games. With alliterations like “H for High Jumps” and “P for Paralympic Athletes,” this clever alphabet book explores Olympian legends, famous moments throughout history, sports included at the Games, and more for a thorough introduction to everything Olympics.
This illustrated chapter book introduces young readers to the Paralympic Games. Learn about their founder, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, and his vision to host sports competitions for his patients with disabilities, many of them wounded in World War II. Soon his games attracted global attention and led to the modern-day Paralympic Games. This book teaches readers about the early history of these games, notable athletes, and historic moments.
Join everyone’s favorite monkey on his latest adventure: practicing for the local summer Games! George discovers new sports like badminton, the long jump, and relay racing. After trying—and failing—to flip over hurdles and learn volleyball, he finds his sweet spot on the balance beam. Soon George is competing with the other gymnasts, cartwheeling and cheering his teammates on to victory. This lighthearted story encourages teamwork and trying new sports.
While this picture book does not feature the Olympics, it was written by an Olympian! Introduce your children to Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American Muslim woman to compete in a hijab at the Olympics and medal, through her vibrant story of a little girl celebrating her sister’s hijab.
Which of these stories is your favorite? Do you and your kids have other books by and about Olympians to recommend? Let us know in the comments or on social media!