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The Undefeated

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
The Undefeated Book Poster Image
Poetic tribute to African American heroes and struggles.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Portraits of many historically significant African American artists, writers, athletes, musicians, activists, and victims of racially motivated killings, and paragraphs about 33 of them at the back of the book. There are also paragraphs about historical events, such as slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, and the civil rights movement. 

Positive Messages

Never give up. Black lives matter. We shall overcome. Keep rising. The underlying theme is you can overcome adversity and achieve great things. Kwame Alexander's poem ends with: "This is for the undefeated. This is for you. And you. And you. This is for us." His Afterword quotes poet Maya Angelou: "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Many, many heroes, male and female, old and young, in various fields. The author spotlights, among others, "The righteous marching ones/ who sang we shall not be moved/ because black lives matter."

Violence & Scariness

No images of graphic violence, but violence is alluded to in the image of African people lined up as cargo in the hold of a slave ship, broken picture frames of children killed in a church bombing, a memorial of candles, flowers, teddy bears, and photos of young black kids apparently killed in police shootings. Some parts of the text poetically allude to violence, like this: "This is for the undeniable./ The ones who scored/ with chains/ on one hand/ and faith/ in the other." 

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Undefeated is by Newbery Award-winning poet and author Kwame Alexander (The Crossover) and illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson. It's a tribute to African American heroes and regular folks who faced struggles, prejudice, and oppression and survived -- as well those who didn't. A list at the back of the book identifies the historical figures and events featured in the art, including Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, John Lewis, the civil rights movement, black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, Duke Ellington, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Trayvon Martin, and many more. In an Afterword, Alexander explains why he wrote the poem that serves as the text for this book, and why he did not shy away from acknowledging the pain and suffering, because so much of American history "has been forgotten, left out of the textbooks, and to truly know who we are as a country, we have to accept and embrace all of our woes and wonders." There are no images or descriptions of graphic violence, but violence is alluded to in the image of enslaved people lined up as cargo in the hold of a ship, broken picture frames of children killed in a church bombing, a memorial of candles, flowers, teddy bears, and photos of young black kids apparently killed in police shootings.

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What's the story?

THE UNDEFEATED is a tribute to African Americans throughout American history, from the time of being captured and brought to America in ships' holds like cargo, though slavery, the civil rights movement, and recent police shootings, and highlights achievements in sports, literature, music, politics, and other fields. A poem that forms the text celebrates those who survived as well as those who didn't, an acknowledgement of the painful history that should not be forgotten. 

Is it any good?

This inspiring celebration of African American heroes and regular folk uses spare poetry and bold art to remind or teach kids about black achievement and struggle. The message of The Undefeated is in its structure, as each stanza begins with "This is for ... " This structure lets the poet acknowledge the folks who came before, who struggled to survive and make their mark on America. "This is for the unlimited,/ unstoppable ones./ The dreamers and doers ..." It's very effective and beautifully amplified by Kadir Nelson's amazing art. Sometimes it features a single figure or face against a stark white page or two-page spread. Other times there's a collage-like jumble of many heroes of a certain genre, like music or sports. 

There's so much to pore over in the words, images, and explanatory back matter that young readers will be engaged for much longer than it takes to read the poem. And it may prompt them to seek more information about these heroes and historical events. The Undefeated also makes a great read-aloud and offers an opportunity for parents and caregivers to share their own memories of these heroes and events with kid readers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the heroes pictured in The Undefeated. Which ones did you recognize? What makes them heroes?

  • Why do you think the author wanted to honor people who didn't survive their circumstances along with people who survived their hardship and went on to achieve great things? 

  • How do you like the txt of the book being a poem? How is poetry different from other kinds of writing? Try writing a poem about something you care about. 

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