Alice Coachman was the first African American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics, when she won the high jump (setting a new record) in 1948 at age 24.
Born in 1923 in Georgia, Alice loved to jump hurdles, running on dirt roads and making her own barriers out of sticks and rags. She was denied access to regular training facilities because of her race. At age 16, she got noticed by Tuskegee Institute, and Alice was offered a scholarship there. (She still had to pay for room and board, however, so she sewed football uniforms to earn the money.) Now she was able to compete against all-black teams throughout the South.
During her career, she won thirty-four national titles and was inducted into nine halls of fame including the National Track-and-Field Hall of Fame (1975) and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (2004). She was also the first black woman to endorse an international product when Coca-Cola signed her as a spokesperson in 1952. [Actually this was part of Coke’s effort to overcome its well-founded racist reputation and increase market-share.] In 1994, she founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to provide assistance to young athletes and former Olympic competitors.
Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper, written by Ann Malaspina and richly illustrated by Eric Velasquez with oil paintings, is for younger readers. Pictures of Alice running through the fields near her house are accompanied with rhythmic simple lines:
Alice Coachman raced
down the dirt road,
bare feet flying,
long legs spinning,
in the wind….”
Still, the text does not shy away from the obstacles Alice faced:
to girls like Alice.”
But Ann Malaspina does not paint a depressing picture. Instead, she focuses on Alice’s hard work, talent, and the good times Alice had, such as this accounting of life on her high school track team:
Traveling wasn’t easy for the Golden Tigeretts.
Whites-only restaurants shut.
to girls like them.
They ate supper on the roadside.
After dark, they hurried on.
Together, the team held strong.
Laughing. Teasing. Having fun.
When they got to the meets,
all that mattered was
No one jumped higher than Alice.
The story ends after the 1948 Olympics, when “Alice had finally touched the sky.”
In the Afterword, there are terrific pictures of Alice and her teammates, an Author’s Note, and a Bibliography.
Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion , written by Heather Lang and illustrated in warm tones by Floyd Cooper, pretty much covers the same ground as Touch the Sky, but for a slightly older audience. For example, here is how the author talks about Alice’s childhood:
In Albany, Georgia, like most of the South, black people didn’t have the same rights as white people. Most white people wouldn’t even shake hands with a black person. Blacks couldn’t sit where they wanted on buses, and they weren’t allowed in many public places. There were no gyms, parks, and tracks where Alice could practice running and jumping. She didn’t let that stop her. She ran barefoot on dirt roads. She collected sticks and tied rags together to make her own high jumps. Alice jumpsed so high, she soared like a bird above the cotton fields.”
This book also ends with the 1948 Olympics, and also features good supplementary material.
Evaluation: Both of these books have lovely illustrations and are very well written. Which book I would select would be more dependent on the age of the child than the quality of the books.
Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion is written by Heather Lang, and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. The publisher is Boyds Mill Press, Inc., 2012.
Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper is written by Ann Malaspina and illustrated by Eric Velasquez. The publisher is Albert Whitman & Company, 2012.