Just Like Jesse Owens by Andrew Young & Paula Young Shelton,  illustrated by Gordon C. James

Just Like Jesse Owens by Andrew Young & Paula Young Shelton,  illustrated by Gordon C. James. Scholastic, 2022. 9780545554657

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: ARC (publication date 8/2/22)

Genre: Memoir

What did you like about the book?  Andrew Young (politician, diplomat, activist) recounts stories of his childhood in New Orleans and the inspiration he drew from Jesse Owens’s participation in the 1936 Olympics. Lengthy first person reminiscences draw the reader into Andrew’s neighborhood, where Black and White boys played together, with numerous scuffles and mischief. His father was a dentist and well-respected within their segregated community, and Andrew learned to treat all people with dignity and respect. One night while his parents were out, the young boy saw a group of Nazi sympathisers walk down his street, yelling “Heil Hitler”. Confused by this, and also by reports from visiting Jewish salesmen, young Andrew went to his dad with questions. His father explains that racism is a “sickness. We’ve got to help people like that..by being the best person you can be…This will show people that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. It’s what you do that counts.” This discussion is memorably juxtaposed with a trip to a segregated movie theater the next week, where Andrew and his father thrill to footage of Jesse Owen dominating in Berlin. Although many of us are familiar with Owens’s triumphs and the stunning impact of his actions around the world, I thought it was fascinating to see it from Andrew Young’s perspective. The book concludes with author and illustrator notes, photos of Young as a boy and with his own daughters, and a brief description of Owens’s achievements, along with a photo of him in Berlin.

Gordon James’s pastel drawings masterfully capture the complex elements of the story with images that are sophisticated and almost impressionistic. He sacrifices detail for mood; the inside of Daddy’s dental practice shows young and old patients waiting patiently, family portraits and a diploma decorating the walls. The place looks homey and warm, but there’s no closeups of tools or faces. We never see the Nazi marchers, instead just the brown faces of Andrew and his brother peeping over the window sill, wide-eyed and cautious. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? I was surprised that Shelton didn’t include much biographical information about her famous father (the book is described as “told to” Shelton by Young), although she does describe hearing the story as a child. A timeline of Young and Owens’s life would have been helpful, and I think most readers would benefit from information about Young’s achievements. The cover art, though appealing (it shows Owens racing with a crowd of boys running alongside him) is misleading, as the youthful Andrew only imagines Jesse’s feats.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Older elementary or even middle school students studying WWII, racism, Owens, or Young will appreciate this authentic and touching story. The text is lengthy, so I can definitely see it as a valuable read-aloud for this age group. Also, a good mentor text for memoir writing.

Who should buy this book? Elementary school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Biography

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: October 2, 2022

This entry was posted in *Book Review, *Picture Book, African Americans, Andrew Young, Gordon C. James, Illustrator, Memoir, Paula Young Shelton, Racism, Sports and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.