America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle, written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener, retells the childhood and achievements of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. After nearly drowning in a pond, Trudy is taught by her father at an early age to swim. Tying a rope around her waist and placing her in a river, Trudy’s father tells her to paddle like a dog. Once she’s the master of the dog paddle, she copies the swim strokes of older sister Margaret and can soon swim better than any of her family or friends.
After winning her first big race at age fifteen, swimming the seventeen miles from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, winning Olympic medals at the 1924 games in Paris, and setting twenty-nine U.S. and world records, she’s ready to take on the ultimate challenge: the twenty mile swim across the English Channel. At just nineteen years old she attempts to do what only five men, and no women, had ever been able to accomplish.
Braving extreme cold, choppy waters, stinging jellyfish, and sharks, Trudy’s first attempt fails when her trainer, fearing the swimmer had swallowed too much sea water, pulled her from the Channel. Just one touch disqualifies the attempt. Disappointed with herself (and more so with her trainer), Trudy finds a new trainer and attempts the feat again a year later.
This time she’s not only successful, but beats the men’s record by almost two hours. While impressive, it’s even more amazing to discover that rough waters, which made all observers on nearby ships seasick, violently pushed Trudy in the opposite direction fro many hours of her fourteen hour swim. Observers estimate that Trudy likely swam the equivalent of thirty-five miles in order to cross the Channel.
And like all true champions, her story doesn’t end with this one feat. Made nearly deaf by the cold waters of the Channel (or possibly by childhood measles), Trudy went on to teach deaf children to swim and later was a member of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.
David A. Adler’s treatment is flawless; this book is an exemplary piece of biographical writing in picture book format, which would make this a perfect mentor text for students to study and emulate. Terry Widener’s lush, folk-art inspired illustrations are the perfect vehicle for this retelling.
- As a follow-up, students may want to check out Ederle's obituary (at ESPN Classics). She lived to the age of 98, spending her last years at a nursing home in Wyckoff, NJ. The obituary confirms many of the details shared in the book's narrative and author's note, while adding others. Students might use the obituary format to write similar summaries of other famous people they've studied.
- You may also wish to check out America's Best Girl, which is a released reading comprehension test from Massachusetts. America's Best Girl is what then-President Calvin Coolidge nicknamed Trudy in a telegraph congratulating her on swimming the channel. The test, downloadable in pdf format, is at the fourth grade level, and contains both multiple choice and an open-ended portion.
- Students often find it "cool" to discover that Trudy went on to help deaf children when she herself lost her hearing. You may wish to extend this to a study of famous people with disabilities, or difference. While the site provided at the link isn't pretty, it's a well categorized collection of people who have accomplished incredible things, despite, and perhaps because of, physical and mental challenges.
Again, I’d recommend this title, first and foremost, for its historical importance. But like America’s Champion Swimmer, it’s a terrific mentor text, demonstrating to students how an entire life story might be parsed to its essence. The author also uses figurative language (simile, hyperbole, metaphor) liberally, so it makes for a worthwhile reread as well.
Definitely check out my previous post on Women in Baseball. There you'll find lots of questions to use when reading the book, plus related titles, activities, and links.
Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. The dedication and hard work needed to succeed as America’s first great dancer is made evident in this autobiography by Maria Tallchief (with author Rosemary Wells) and illustrator Gary Kelley. What we also discover, however, is what is at the soul of a dancer, In words as lyrical as dance itself, Maria says:
The secret of music is that it is something like a house with many rooms. My first simple exercises were like the frame of a house before it is built. The frame of good music has to be strong enough to hold the weight of a whole symphony, and delicate enough to break the heart.The book’s luminescent images are reminiscent of the Degas dance paintings, but are at the same time solid, saturated, and iconic.
- Students are likely to ask what Maria Tallchief looked like in "real life." Definitely share some images with them. They may also wish to see her in action (this short video also includes Maria being honored with the National Medal of Arts Award in 1999).
- Maria was honored with the title "Woman of Two Worlds." Both before and after reading the book, ask students for their hypotheses about that name. To which two worlds does it refer? What other nickname might students choose for her? Who else can think of other famous people who have been honored with nicknames that tell the world more about them?
- Teachers can read more about Maria's childhood, and share some of the anecdotes with students, who are always curious to hear how the lives of "the great ones" mirror their own.
In case you can’t tell, the fourteen performers profiled in this book are nothing less than amazing. Take, for example, Sonora Webster Carver, who plummeted forty feet, on horseback, into a tank of water just eleven feet deep on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. For seven years she performed this feat until a terrible accident blinded her at the age of twenty-seven. Unknown to her fans below, Sonora continued to ride the high-diving horses blind for the next eleven years. (Her story was eventually made into the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken).
- Some of these daredevils and more are featured at 7 Most Mind-Blowing She-Daredevils in History. These women did stunts so incredibly insane that few men would even attempt them!
- At the National History Education Clearninghouse you can find a downloadable quiz of female daredevils (to the right at this site), plus additional links to expanded stories of their exploits (bottom of page).
- For writing autobiographies of every conceivable form and length, I'd recommend you visit ReadWriteThink and check out the following interactives: Acrostic Poems, Bio-Cube, Character Trading Cards, Flip Book, Postcard Creator, and Timeline. Those are just a few of the 56 cool tools that site provides for students. Need even more ideas? Check out my collection of interactive writing tools.