A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
I Am Muhammad Ali offers an engaging introduction to the iconic heavyweight champion and civil rights icon, and the issues and conflicts of his life and era. As is standard in the Ordinary People Change the World series, there's a lot of intriguing detail, and an extensive list of resources at the end so you can learn more.
"I can make it without your approval." Strong messages of standing up for yourself and your beliefs, no matter how terrifying the cost. Relatable, righteous outrage at being the victim of racial discrimination -- also of bicycle theft. Importance of using brains, strategy, and skill instead of brute force to overcome your opponent.
Positive Role Models
As a Black kid growing up in segregated South, Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, a name he changed because it belonged to the family that enslaved his ancestors) experienced routine discrimination. He found a racism-free environment in the boxing world, and used his skills to address wrongs and make things better. Stubborn and relentless in his beliefs, he resisted the Vietnam War draft and was ultimately supported by the U.S. Supreme Court. Unmentioned in the story, which ends with the 1973 Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, is his 1984 diagnosis with Parkinson's disease attributed to brain damage in the ring, or his steadfast refusal to heed the doctors who implored him to stop fighting. Violence of boxing is glossed over in favor of praising skill.
As a Black child in the South, and later as a still-teenage Olympic gold medalist, Ali faces segregation and other forms of racial discrimination amid "Whites only" attractions and facilities. When he first discovers the boxing gym, "since both Black and white boxers were welcome, the outside world seemed to fade away." His mentors include both a White policeman and a Black coach. Ali's attraction and conversion to Islam is a major theme, and he's seen praying with fellow Muslims.
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Violence & Scariness
Not once in 40 pages is Muhammad Ali seen throwing a punch, though we see the aftermath of punches that he lands on his mom (when he's an infant), the school bully, and George Foreman. Briefly alludes to fact that "people think boxing is a brutal sport" but portrays it in an overwhelmingly positive light as a haven of racial acceptance, a platform for Ali's strategic thinking and "float like a butterfly/sting like a bee" skills. No mention of brain damage Ali sustained from 200,000+ blows to the head during his career, his 1984 Parkinson's disease diagnosis generally attributed to those blows, nor his refusal to heed doctors' warnings in multiple returns to the ring. Racial discrimination, the Vietnam War, and threat of imprisonment for draft resistance also add background violence to the narrative.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that I Am Muhammad Ali is a part of the award-winning Ordinary People Change the World series by author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos, which features notable characters from history and current events as pint-size cartoon characters facing and triumphing over many challenges. In this case, it's Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay; the name change is part of the story), aka "The Greatest." The book shows how he achieved renown as an Olympic gold medalist in boxing and became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a principled draft refuser, and a civil rights icon. The authors emphasize Ali's experiences of racism as a Black kid in the South, his discovery of the world of boxing, where skin color was not a barrier, and his strong refusal to compromise his principles by being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War (a position ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court). The story ends in 1973 with the Rumble in the Jungle, his match against George Foreman, and makes no mention of the brutal, brain-damaging effects of boxing, the probable cause of Ali's 1984 diagnosis with Parkinson's disease. (It's not mentioned in the story, but there's a brief mention on the timeline.) It focuses on his strategy and skill rather than the estimated 200,000 blows he took to the head over the course of his career.
Is It Any Good?
This is an engaging portrait of a hero who stands firm at enormous personal cost and goes on to become "The Greatest." Author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopolous spotlight the noted boxer and civil rights icon whose hard work, persistence, and determination in standing by his principles raised him to legendary status. Part of the Ordinary People Change the World series, I Am Muhammad Ali is overly rosy in spots -- for example, the authors focus on relatable issues like being a kid on the receiving end of discrimination, and portray the boxing world as a paradise of interracial harmony, never mentioning the physical injuries and brain damage Ali sustained as a result of his career path.
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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.