A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Details and descriptions about life in the segregated South may provide young readers with a desire to learn about the history of the civil rights movement. For kids unfamiliar with the history of boxing, the book describes several famous fights that can be found on YouTube.
As Ali's grandfather Herman reminds him, "Know who you are, and whose you are." Even if you get knocked down, don't let anybody keep you down.
Positive Role Models
Young Cassius Clay was as brash and boastful in public as he was shy and humble in private. His legendary work ethic, determination to be the greatest, and devotion to friends and family were all traits developed as a young man that would serve him well when he became one of the most famous and beloved sports heroes of all time. The story also shows an example of someone with a learning disability -- dyslexia -- who struggled in school but found ways to excel in other areas.
Violence & Scariness
Boxing is a violent sport, so there are descriptions of hard punches and knockouts. There are also mentions of racial terror that Cassius encounters as a young man in the Jim Crow South: He and his friends are threatened with a switch blade at one point, and he is deeply affected when he hears about the lynching of Emmett Till. There is also a local boy given to bullying who Cassius and his friends have to deal with, but thankfully they settle their scores in the ring rather than on the street.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A few mentions of adults smoking cigarettes and drinking socially.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Becoming Muhammad Ali, by James Patterson and Newberry Medal-winning poet and novelist Kwame Alexander, is a poetic portrait of the formative years of Cassius Clay's life in Louisville, Kentucky, before he became a world-famous star athlete and activist. Although the book only touches on Ali's political and religious awakening briefly in the epilogue, the context of his youth in the segregated South provides depictions of several disturbing encounters with racism, including "Whites Only" signs, violent threats from a White stranger, and the lynching of Emmett Till. There are a few mentions of adults smoking cigarettes and drinking socially.
Is It Any Good?
Alexander's poetry is exciting and evocative, filled with nostalgic images of Black Southern life and glimpses of the troubled times that Clay grew up in. The imagery comes alive even more due to the striking cartoon-style illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile. The style of the storytelling is easy to read and understand, packing a ton of information and emotion into short, digestible bursts. Because the story focuses on Clay's youth, it highlights universally relatable themes about the difficulties of adolescence, feeling torn between friends and romantic interests and other passions and pursuits, and the struggle to find your place in the world.
For kids who may not be familiar with the heyday of boxing as an American pastime, the book serves as a great introduction and a jumping off point for further exploration. As a novel about life in the Jim Crow South, it also has the potential to get young readers thinking and talking about the troubling history of segregation and racial oppression. While the brief epilogue may leave readers wanting to know more about the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali the boxer and iconic activist, this coming-of-age story does an excellent job of showing how the experiences of young Cassius Clay made him into the man who would one day and forever be known as "The Greatest."
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.