This 310 page, AR 5.4 biography reads like a dream being remembered and flowing with newly awakened images presented in a lyrical way. The changes in point of view and writing style keep the book bouncing like a boxing match, and flesh out the early life of Muhammad Ali for middle grade readers. Only at the very end does it mention that he changed his name when he converted to The Nation of Islam, it doesn’t detail much about it, and it doesn’t mention his eventual conversion to Islam, even though it does mention him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his death. I understand that the book focuses on his preteen and teen years, but it seems like The Awakening of Malcolm X also intentionally cut that footnote out of the book, and having read that book a few weeks ago, it seems a deliberate exclusion in both cases and that bothers me. It could be coincidence, as both 2020 published middle grade coming of age books have familial support in the writing and research, admittedly it just might be my timing of reading them makes it seem that something larger is at play. Ultimately, this book gives insight into who Cassius Clay was, and what his life and friend circle looked like as a boy in Kentucky. The verse and flow of the text make the book an easy and enjoyable read.
Lucky is Muhammad Ali’s friend growing up and is the narrating voice that sets up each chapter and overall framing of the book. The bookish friend is a writer and eventually a journalist that moves the story forward. The verses that follow each intro are the imagined voice of Muhammad Ali. There is a bibliography at the back, but the story starts with this warning, or disclaimer, or wink of sorts:
The book opens with Lucky and the Clay family waiting for the phone to ring in 1958 to find out if Cassius has won in Chicago. He is there fighting for the National Golden Gloves. He eventually loses the tournament, but he doesn’t stay down. The book then rewinds and starts back before Cassius ever enters the ring. The reader gets to know about Granddaddy Herman and the bond that the two share. He is Cassius’s church and source of pride. We also learn about how Cassius sees the world and the racism that exists in it. His humbleness and frustration with seeing how hard his mom has to work for so little reward. We see how his friends shape him, but more importantly how he shapes them, and we see how although he struggles in school how he is articulate and respectful and beloved by so many. His younger brother is a constant in the story, as is the narrator Lucky. The book gets inside the character Cassius and if you didn’t know it was a biography, you would think it was a fictional coming of age book. The ups and downs, the setbacks, the frustrations, the dreams, it all flows and makes you feel for this determined kid, who despite all his bravado, is really a down to earth human being.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I don’t think I learned anything ground breakingly new reading this book, but I felt like I got to know the material in a more fleshed-out way. It isn’t a list of facts or hight lights, it is the nuanced day-to-day that lift him off the page and out of the headlines. I like the change of voice and style of writing, it made sense to me, and allowed the book to resonate differently than a traditional biography would. I think it will also appeal to a wider audience because of the verse and easy flow. I similarly enjoyed the illustrations that pepper the book. I appreciate that the story is told from a friend looking in on someone that he knows well, but I almost would have preferred his brother being the voice and bringing the reader even closer to the boxer. Ultimately I want to know more about his parents and his brother and how they felt about his success. The book didn’t answer a lot of question, but hopefully it will spark the curiosity of readers to go and learn more.
He slightly mentions crushes and dating, that his dad is out galavanting Friday nights until Saturday. There is mention of a side character having part of his face damaged in an explosion, there is reference to the N word.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would consider the book as a book club selection if it served a larger purpose or the group had a preexisting interest. I think if I were to meet with a group of kids more than just once a month for an hour or so for a book club discussion, this book would have a lot of potential for introducing the athlete, writing styles, historical implications and so on. I just don’t know that we could get to all that in such a limited time. If they had already learned about his boxing accomplishment, his protesting of the war, his conversion for example, this book would be a great discussion extender to supplement basic knowledge of him.