Becoming Muhammad Ali

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Becoming Muhammad Ali Book Poster Image
Lyrical novel traces childhood, evolution of sports legend.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

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.

Positive Messages

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 & Representations

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.


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.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A few mentions of adults smoking cigarettes and drinking socially.

What 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.

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What's the story?

BECOMING MUHAMMAD ALI is a hybrid novel with dozens of poems and short sections of prose that tell the story of the boxing legend's early life and emergence as a Golden Gloves amateur champion. Each chapter (or "round") begins with a brief section written from the perspective of one of young Cassius Clay's best friends, Lucky, followed by a series of poems, many of which emulate the lyrical style that the "Louisville Lip" would later make famous in press conferences and public appearances. A collaboration between best-selling author James Patterson and award-wining poet Kwame Alexander, the project received the official blessing of the late boxer's family and estate and draws from oral history interviews conducted with his friends and family. Growing up in a middle class household in the segregated South, young Cassius is confused and disturbed by the racism all around him. As a part of a strong family with an inspiring patriarch -- his grandfather, Herman --Cassius learns the value of hard work, humility, and discipline. However, he struggles to read and has trouble keeping up in school due to his undiagnosed dyslexia. He decides he wants to do something exciting with his life, almost accidentally falling into boxing when he stumbles into a local gym and begins training. Once he sees a path forward through sports, he becomes determined to be the best, working relentlessly and learning from mentors and elder statesmen in the sport. The story follows Cassius from his introduction to boxing up through his first televised fights and the local and national Golden Gloves competitions, ending with his arrival as a star talent and gold medalist at the 1960 Olympic Games. A brief epilogue traces the outlines of the rest of his storied career, touching on his decision to join the Nation of Islam and change his name, his imprisonment as a result of his refusal to fight in what he believed to be an unjust war in Vietnam, and his post-boxing career as a humanitarian and activist.    

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."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the value of learning about sports and civil rights heroes of the past in books like Becoming Muhammad Ali. How did Black athletes in the mid-20th century pave the way for athlete activism today?

  • What impact did Cassius Clay's experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South have on his commitment to social justice and Black empowerment?

  • What did you know about Muhammad Ali before reading this book? What did you learn that you didn't know? 

Book details

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For kids who love to learn about sports heroes

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