The best books about athletes

8 authors have picked their favorite books about athletes and why they recommend each book.

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The Happiest Girl in the World

By Alena Dillon,

Book cover of The Happiest Girl in the World

In this novel that feels ripped straight from the headlines, the life of a young woman training as an elite gymnast is upended when her best friend confides that their doctor has assaulted her. Not only is this story timely, but it provides a glimpse into the mind-boggling discipline and talent it takes to be an Olympic gymnast.


Who am I?

My novels explore women whose contributions to culture have been relegated to the footnotes of mainstream history books, and in few areas have women been more overlooked than in sports. Because of the achievements of today’s female athletes, ranging from the many athletic opportunities available to our young daughters to the professional success of women like Serena Williams, it’s easy to think that progress for women’s sports has come a long way—and in many ways, it has, thanks to legislative protections like Title IX—but these achievements reflect over a century’s worth of sacrifice by many unheralded women athletes. Here are five books that highlight this journey.


I wrote...

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

By Elise Hooper,

Book cover of Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

What is my book about?

Fast Girls is historical fiction inspired by the real-life women track stars of the late 1920s and ‘30s. Three young women—Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens—will join with others to defy society’s expectations of what women can achieve. As tensions bring the United States and Europe closer and closer to the brink of war, these women must fight for the chance to compete as the fastest women in the world amidst the pomp and pageantry of the Nazi-sponsored 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 

We Got Game! 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World

By Aileen Weintraub, Sarah Green (illustrator),

Book cover of We Got Game! 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World

Over the years, I’ve met many young people who are more interested in sports than social studies. I was so excited to find this book—because it helps sports-minded kids see the tremendous contribution young women have made to both sports and social change. You’ll read about how these women overcame barriers, competed in challenging circumstances, and still broke records. You will also learn how they are still making a difference in the world. These multidimensional heroes help us want to be more like them! 


Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve found that learning about other writers and their processes helps me. Over the years, I’ve devoured the memoirs and letters of writers like Madeleine L’Engle, Audre Lorde, and Zora Neal Hurston. In 2006, when I started a writing program for young people in my city, I brought these writers’ words to use as writing prompts. When I researched my book, Mightier Than the Sword, I read dozens of anthologies to find people who used writing to make a difference in their fields—science, art, politics, music, and sports. I will always be grateful for those anthologies—because they broadened my knowledge and introduced me to so many interesting people.


I wrote...

Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing

By Rochelle Melander, Melina Ontiveros (illustrator),

Book cover of Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing

What is my book about?

Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is a middle-grade social justice book that tells the stories of historical and contemporary writers, activists, scientists, and leaders who used writing to make a difference in their lives and communities. The stories are accompanied by writing and creative exercises to help readers discover how they can use writing to explore ideas and ask for change. Sidebars explore types of writing, fun facts, and further resources.

Let Me Play

By Karen Blumenthal,

Book cover of Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America

Today’s young readers can’t believe that when I was in high school, our basketball team was only allowed in the gym when the boys weren’t using it. They can’t believe there was a time when people thought girls shouldn’t play competitive sports. But really, who could believe it? Who could believe it would take an act of Congress – the 1972 law known as Title IX – to guarantee girls and women the right to equal opportunities in every academic field and in athletics? I love this book because it tells the story of Title IX, a law that mandated academic equity for girls and women, and changed the world for girls who love sports. 


Who am I?

I was a very active kid – the kind of kid who was constantly told to sit still and be quiet. Growing up in the 1960s, I had few opportunities to engage in athletics, other than neighborhood games of tag and kick-the-can. But when I got to high school, our school district had just begun offering competitive sports for girls. Finally, my energy and athletic ability were appreciated (at least by my coaches and teammates). So I guess it was inevitable that when I began writing books for young readers, I would start with a book about a girl who loves sports.


I wrote...

Nikki on the Line

By Barbara Carroll Roberts,

Book cover of Nikki on the Line

What is my book about?

When our sports-loving son was growing up in the early 2000s, he devoured stacks and stacks of books about boys who play sports. When our sports-loving daughter was growing up, a few years behind him, she stopped reading for pleasure when she got to sixth grade. Why? Because she couldn’t find more than a handful of books about girls like her – girls whose whole world revolved around sports. That’s why I wrote Nikki on the Line. My research for this book was simply my daily life – the hundreds of hours I spent inside gyms, watching our daughter and her teammates practice and compete. And the hundreds more I spent rebounding for her while she shot – and shot and shot – on our driveway hoop. 

Break the Fall

By Jennifer Iacopelli,

Book cover of Break the Fall

I inhaled Break the Fall, set in the world of elite gymnastics. After an injury, Audrey is not only ready to return to gymnastics but does the impossible thing of qualifying for the Olympics. Finally, she’s on the cusp of achieving all that she’s dreamed of and trained for all these years. Everything unravels, however, when their coach is accused of sexual assault. Iacopelli does a gorgeous job capturing all of the highs and lows of this story, as well as the intensity of elite athletics. While we don’t typically think of gymnastics as a team sport, I was especially appreciative of the way Iacopelli showed the girls standing up for each other as a team, which is rare in YA girls’ sports books. 


Who am I?

I adore books about sporty badass girls. Yet, when I first began to write Dangerous Play, there were few young-adult novels featuring fierce sporty girls. Of those, there were fewer which portrayed the powerful friendships that can emerge on girls’ sports teams. I want to read and write about girls who are defined by more than their love interests, who are dogged in the pursuit of their goals. In a world that so often judges girls by how their bodies look, sports offers an arena in which girls can view and value their bodies in an alternative way. And who doesn’t love to cheer for someone who beats the odds? 


I wrote...

Dangerous Play

By Emma Kress,

Book cover of Dangerous Play

What is my book about?

Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.

But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments, but one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.

Gold

By Chris Cleave,

Book cover of Gold

This is a book I found out about when I was researching and writing my own book. It follows the story of three British cyclists, Zoe, Kate, and Jack, as they train for Olympic glory. Cleave writes about the glorious excitement of the sport, the brutal pain of training, and the hard choices these athletes have to make and his characters are unforgettable. 

Gold helped me realise that you can write a book that weaves sport into a story about love, friendship, loyalty, and grief. Gold was a great inspiration to me!


Who am I?

I was born in England but have also lived in Germany and Switzerland. I’m not – and never have been – an elite sportsperson, but I'm fascinated by the sporting world and in particular, how young people who are into sports cope with the pressures of growing up and dealing with the successes and failures of sports. I love playing sports and watching it, in particular the Olympics and Paralympics, because of the drama, the tension, the soaring highs of winning, and the miserable lows of losing. The books that I've chosen hooked me in and kept me turning their pages because they’re gripping stories with irresistible (sporty) characters in inspiring settings.


I wrote...

No Number Nine

By F.J. Campbell,

Book cover of No Number Nine

What is my book about?

A novel with a strong female lead character who's flawed but who readers will take to their hearts. A story about grief, family conflicts, and first love, with a dramatic background of sport and the Olympics.

What do you do when your amazing, beautiful, beloved sister dies? Hide in your room for two years. Sleep with a very, very wrong man. Leave home and start a new life, lying to everyone you meet including your kind employer, your curious friends, and the man you love? Pip Mitchell's an expert at making seriously bad decisions. But when her past, present, and future collide at the Sydney Olympic Games, she's going to have to decide whose side she's on – or she'll lose everyone she loves.

Women in Sports

By Rachel Ignotofsky,

Book cover of Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win

I personally don’t think there are enough books on the shelves about Women in Sports. Although this is a middle grade book, I thoroughly enjoyed how the author brought her chosen athletes to life. Ignostofsky also illustrated the book and that added another dimension to the book that made it fun and entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised that she chose a few athletes who I hadn’t heard of. 


Who am I?

As a child I loved to read and write but I also loved sports. I played every sport I could, and races and games fueled me. My mother called me the “joiner.” Teams create bonds and friendships and I’m still in touch with former teammates. This gives me inspiration to write human interactions. Determination and perseverance are part of being an athlete and I write about strong characters who want to succeed but often meet obstacles along the way. I honestly believe that my sports background has helped me survive publishing, because both are full of highs and lows. Please, enjoy my recommended list because they’re books with heart.


I wrote...

When You Least Expect It

By Lorna Schultz Nicholson,

Book cover of When You Least Expect It

What is my book about?

Seventeen-year-old Holly Callahan desperately wants to make the national rowing team so she can compete overseas, but she is the last rower cut. Her summer dreams are shattered, and she finds herself back at home, living with her mother's annoying new boyfriend, Super Stew.

Holly's not a quitter. She lands a summer job, and then is handed an unexpected lifeline in the person of a man who offers to coach her in a single rowing boat. For a girl raised without a father, the coach's generosity — and rigorous demands — are a gift. But where did he come from and who is he, really? Discovering the answer plunges her into sadness — but then he inspires her to work beyond her comfort zone.

Mamie on the Mound

By Leah Henderson, George Doutsiopoulos (illustrator),

Book cover of Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball's Negro Leagues

The athlete in me was drawn to this story before I even opened the book. I hadn’t heard of Mamie Johnson and I imagine most kids haven’t either so I’m happy Leah Henderson decided to write about her. Ever since she learned about baseball at six years old, Mamie wanted to be on the mound more than anything. But “she already had two strikes against her: She was a girl. She was black.” Despite those challenges, Mamie was always ready to prove she deserved to play and eventually earned a spot pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League.


Who am I?

Ever since I was a kid, I felt a strong desire to do the unexpected: A 9-year-old girl watching the World Wrestling Federation on TV and then recreating the action with her neighbors, a 5’2” volleyball player itching to play the front row, that same petite player wanting to join the army after high school. That last one didn’t end up panning out but I’ve always wanted to break out of whatever box I felt society put me in as a female. I love to write stories about women who broke barriers and made it possible for me, and the next generation, to continue to challenge expectations.


I wrote...

Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer's Historic Boston Marathon

By Kim Chaffee, Ellen Rooney (illustrator),

Book cover of Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer's Historic Boston Marathon

What is my book about?

Kathrine Switzer changed the world of running. This narrative biography follows Kathrine from running laps as a girl in her backyard to becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with official race numbers in 1967. Her inspirational true story is for anyone willing to challenge the rules.

The compelling collage art adds to the kinetic action of the story. With tension and heart, this biography has the influential power to get readers into running. An excellent choice for sports fans, New Englanders, young dreamers, and competitive girls and boys alike.

The Mindful Athlete

By George Mumford,

Book cover of The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Peak Performance

In addition to the many books on meditation and mindfulness practice, I read performance books to add that angle to my own book. Even if someone only wanted to run faster, jump higher, or hit a better golf shot, I wanted them to find something more. This is also true of Mumford’s book. He offers profound advice for athletes of any type learned from his experience and the journeys of the professional athletes he has coached. There’s kindness without sugar-coating and profound vulnerability on these pages. I read it straight through.


Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.


I wrote...

How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

What is my book about?

Why bother with meditation? You’ll find freedom using the mind-body connection as you transform any movement into a powerful mindful meditation practice. What is meditation? Silent retreats? Yoga? Tai Chi? What if you could meditate during fitness or daily activities such as lifting weights, dancing with your love, or walking across a room? What if you could make every move a meditation?

In Make Every Move a Meditation, award-winning author, meditation leader, and mental health advocate Nita Sweeney offers centuries-old techniques to help readers connect with the present moment, bringing mindfulness into any activity. Studies show both exercise and meditation reduce anxiety, stabilize blood pressure, improve mood and cognition, and lead to a deeper self-relationship and wisdom. Movement is medicine, and meditation is medicine. Let’s combine the two.

Born to Run

By Christopher McDougall,

Book cover of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

An aspiring ultra runner must read this book. It gives homage to a tribe of people who have used long-distance running as part of their society. Micah True planned the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon to bring together the ultrarunning community with this local tribe. Jenn and Billy, two young ultra runners, tie the story to a current-day nomadic and free lifestyle that is sure to inspire any new ultra runner. 


Who am I?

I want an adventurous life filled with experiences and challenges that make me appreciate the world around me. My experience in running 50 miles shows just how determined I am to lead an uncommon life. The books I’ve compiled here all share that one thing in common, they chronicle the author’s paths in following this mantra. Life is meant to be lived, no matter what form you find that in. I hope you find and nurture your adventurous life from these stories that were written from the heart.


I wrote...

The Impossible Long Run: My Journey to Becoming Ultra

By Janet Patkowa,

Book cover of The Impossible Long Run: My Journey to Becoming Ultra

What is my book about?

If you think you want to run an ultra marathon, you don’t, trust me. 

Are you still reading? Oh boy, then you are about to go down a very difficult road and you’re going to need all the help you can get. The Impossible Long Run chronicles my journey to a 50-mile race, and it can help you do the same. I show you that it is possible. Not easy! But possible. I chose to do this because I wanted to shake up my cozy 9 to 5 existence. This race jumpstarted my adventure-seeking life that I continue to pursue because running a 50-mile race taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.

Gods at Play

By Tom Callahan,

Book cover of Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports

The author looks back on 50 years of sportswriting. This is a personal book, rich with stories of the sports gods of the 1960s and 1970s. Callahan was an insider and has stuff on Larry Bird and Muhammad Ali that no one else has. Callahan presents a fascinating earlier time when newspaper beat reporters were valuable to the team's they covered. Cincinnati Royals coach Bob Cousy refused an airline's request to bounce Callahan off a commercial flight, telling the pilot "we fly as a team and he is with us." 


Who am I?

I have been privileged to cover sports for the Boston Globe for the last 40-plus years. It is the best place in the country to do what I do. New England has tradition, smart readers, historic teams, and a great deal of success, especially in this century. As an author of 14 books, it's nice to bring some sports to the conversation on this site.

I wrote...

Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics

By Dan Shaughnessy,

Book cover of Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics

What is my book about?

Today the NBA is a vast global franchise—a billion-dollar industry viewed by millions of fans in the United States and abroad. But it wasn’t always this successful. Before primetime ESPN coverage, lucrative branding deals like Air Jordans, and $40 million annual player salaries, there was the NBA of the 1970s and 1980s—when basketball was still an up-and-coming sport featuring old school beat reporters and players wore Converse All-Stars.

Shaughnessy takes us inside the legendary Larry Bird-led Celtics teams, capturing the camaraderie as they rose to dominate the NBA. Fans can witness the cockiness of Larry Bird; the ageless athleticism of Robert Parish; the shooting skills of Kevin McHale; the fierce, self-sacrificing play of Bill Walton; and the playful humor of players like Danny Ainge, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, and M.L. Carr.

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