(D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Boys, Family Read Alouds, Middle Grades, Nonfiction, Teen/Adult
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The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation) by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat is a gripping nonfiction story for middle grades about teamwork, perseverance, and triumph at the Olympics.

The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Puffin Books, 2015. 227 pages.

  • Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12
  • Recommended For: Middle grades, ages 10 and up
The Boys in the Boat cover image
The Boys in the Boat

At age 10, Joe Rantz was fending for himself. His mom had died, and his stepmom wanted nothing to do with him. During the Depression, one extra mouth to feed was one too many. Joe’s childhood was one hardscrabble situation after another, but somehow, he made it to the University of Washington for college and tried out for the rowing team. All those years of manual labor had made him strong–like many of his fellow teammates. But were these boys strong enough? Could these rugged individuals become a real team? Were they able to beat out the Ivy Leaguers in the Northeast or those boys from sunny California?

Historical events like the 1936 Olympic Games are facts: we already know what happened (or can find out in a quick internet search). The story leading up to an event like this must be done well to hold our attention: what happens to Seabiscuit along the way? How did the Titanic sink? It takes a talented author to hook the reader and keep his or her attention for the 200 pages leading up to the final event. Brown does just that, alternating chapters between Joe’s childhood and his experiences at the University of Washington. The pace is perfect, reaching a nail-biting conclusion in the final moments of the Olympic Games as Adolf Hitler looks on from the stands in Berlin. Character, hard work, teamwork, and sportsmanship are impossible to ignore, but Brown doesn’t preach. He doesn’t need to. This is a terrific read for middle school students, whether they are athletes in training or not. Try it as a family read aloud if you have middle school and up kids in your home. Or as a read aloud in a history classroom!

Considerations:

  • Joe’s upbringing includes some rough situations. This young readers adaption is suitable for young readers, but sensitive kids will be saddened by his treatment!
  • Don’t be surprised by conversations resulting from this book; young readers can’t help but be moved. Be on the lookout for opportunities to discuss hard work, teamwork, and sportsmanship as well as the effects of the Great Depression, what was going on in Nazi Germany, and how much the Olympics (and college sports in general) have changed!

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

  • Artistic Rating: 4.5
  • Worldview Rating: 4.5

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5 Comments

  1. Stephanie Breuner says

    I was able to go to a talk given by Joe Rantz’s daughter in Portland OR last year. This book probably would never have come to fruition without her. She had become a historian of sorts preserving the memories regarding her dad and the University of Washington (U-Dub) rowing team for quite awhile. It was her desire that this story be told, but she had never written a book. I believe the beginning of the book describes the “chance” meeting with the author, Dan Brown. He was her neighbor. She didn’t know he was a writer until he mentioned that maybe he should help her out by writing this book for her. She had to go home and look up who he was and was surprised to discover that he was a well-known author.

    At the event I attended she spoke that she does not think that meeting Dan Brown was by chance, but as a woman of faith, believes it was providential.

  2. Stephanie Breuner says

    As a sidenote, I asked Joe Rantz’s daughter if she recommended the Young Readers edition, since I have daughters aged 9 and 12, or if reading the original unabridged version was better. She kind of wrinkled up her nose and said it was the publisher’s decision to publish a kid’s version by shortening the book by cutting out longer descriptive parts. In her mind, she felt it did the book a disservice and took quite a bit of the color from it. The original, in paperback, is 370 pages without the author’s notes at the end (versus 227 for the Young Reader’s version). Just something to consider-especially if you are reading the unabridged aloud and have the option of skipping parts when you deem it necessary.

    I have not read the young reader’s version, but I was enthralled with the original. When my book club read it, I remember thinking, “how interesting can a book about a rowing team be?’ The answer: very!

    • Thanks, Stephanie. I’ve wondered how the two compare. I’ve read several “young readers versions” over the years, and when I get a chance to compare them side-by-side with the originals, it’s often simply length that’s the difference. And sometimes, length is important to younger readers. But this book is hard to put down, so I imagine length wouldn’t be a deterrent!

      • Hayley says

        Stephanie, that’s so neat you got to go to that talk! Regarding versions, I read the adult version, and it was equally a page-turner. It joined the ranks of Adam Makos’ books, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: passed around and read by each member of the family, from the youngest brother (12) to my father!

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