Born in 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee, the third youngest of 22 children, Wilma was a sickly child. Her mother usually nursed her through each illness; medical care was expensive and there was only one doctor in town who would treat black people. At age five, Wilma got a high fever and her left leg twisted inward. The doctor diagnosed scarlet fever and polio, and it was assumed she'd never walk again. Twice a week she and her mother rode the back of the bus to Nashville, fifty miles away, to the nearest hospital that would treat black patients. These stark facts will stun children. The look of this gripping and inspiring picture book biography will pull them in.
Each page of text and the black-bordered illustration on the facing page are set against a brown-toned background photograph of real materials: a burlap sack on one page, the hubcap of a bus on the next, and a paint-peeling wooden fence on the next. It's fascinating to try to identify the medium and figure out its connection to the page. Caldecott Medal winner David Diaz's (Smoky Night) acrylic, watercolor, and gouache paintings use flat opaque colors highlighted in black and outlined with bold black lines that give them a stained glass appearance. His style looks like a combination of Depression-era artists like Fernand Léger, Georges Braques, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera, but also of Expressionist painter Georges Roualt. The well-muscled figures may remind you of jointed wood body forms, but the well-defined faces with large eyes and arched eyebrows are filled with emotion. Diaz even created his own font for the text.
But back to the text, which is every bit as compelling as the arresting illustrations and layout. Wilma kept on moving, hopping on one foot, doing endless painful exercises to strengthen her paralyzed leg. Because she couldn't walk, the local school would not allow her to attend. "Finally, tired of crying all the time, she decided she had to fight back-somehow." When she was fitted with a heavy metal brace and was allowed back in school, children made fun of it. Watching them play basketball on the playground, she memorized their moves. Now comes one of the most moving sequences you'll recall in a children's book. There's Wilma, outside her church, removing the brace, and in a wordless double-page illustration, walking triumphantly down the aisle as people watch, wide-eyed. (Will your kids complain about stubbing a toe after this? I think not.)
Removing the brace for good at age 12, Wilma threw herself into basketball, winning a full athletic scholarship to college, the first person in her family to do so. On to the 1960 Rome Olympics as a runner, where she ran her first race with a twisted ankle and still won the 100-meter dash. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals. "Wilma Rudolph, once known as the sickliest child in Clarksville, had become the fastest woman in the world."
The only thing missing from the book is an actual photograph of this African American heroine and role model. You can find several at: http://www.biggeststars.com/w/wilma-rudolph-home.html. Introduce other athletes who defied the odds, including Jackie Mitchell in Mighty Jackie, the Strike Out Queen by Marissa Moss and The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth by Jean L. S. Patrick. To see what it was like to survive polio, read children's book author Peg Kehret's splendid memoir which reads like a novel, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio.
Reviewed by JF.
THEMES: AFRICAN AMERICANS. BIOGRAPHY. MULTICULTURAL BOOKS. SPORTS.
Harcourt Children, 1996
Suggested Ages: 7-10