The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is the true story of nine young men who electrify the rowing sports world by winning Olympic gold. (Brown’s book has been adapted for young readers by Gregory Mone and is published by Puffin, 2016.) The story focuses on the number two man in the boat, Joe Rantz

Joe grew up trusting no one. When he was about four years old, his mother died of cancer, and his father abandoned him. Joe’s older brother, a college student, was unable to care for his younger sibling. Joe took the train across the country to live with an aunt for about a year. Then his father came back to the eastern Washington area, with a new Canadian wife.

She did not like Joe from day one and this would put a wedge in Joe’s relationship with his father. She would demand that Joe’s father abandon Joe two more times, once when he was age 10 and again at age 15. Joe learned not to trust anyone, and to make his own way. He did meet one very important person. In Idaho he met Joyce, an understanding young woman who would become his wife.

At age 17, Joe left Idaho to live with his brother, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in the state of Washington. Joe was accepted to the University of Washington during the Great Depression. He would need to find a job to pay for his education. If he could make the freshmen crew team, he would get a job with the university helping him to pay for college. After months of hard practice on the icy lake near the university, he and seven others made the freshmen crew team.

The freshmen managed to win the races that counted, even against the formidable University of California. The boys in the boat struggled during practice and the coaches were perplexed. Joe seemed to struggle the most. He needed to figure something out that would take him to the top. He needed to trust the other members of the team, but he still trusted no one. In the middle of Joe’s sophomore year, his stepmother died and his father mended his relationship with Joe. His father even watched the races near his house where there was a race course.

During their junior year, the Washington crew was becoming established as the one which would make the 1936 Olympic trials.  But the team would have to beat the University of California crew. The two battled it out with Washington coming out on top. The junior crew won the national championship, earning them a spot at the Olympic trials.

The east coast teams were supposed to be the best, but Washington once again came out on top, securing the opportunity to represent the United States in Berlin. However, the U. S. Olympic Committee was not going to send them unless they could raise the funds to pay for their transportation. The east coast teams had members who could and would pay. When the University of Washington heard about this, the school was outraged. The school agreed to raise the money and in a few days they had enough to send their boys to the Olympics.

The University of Washington team was not expected to medal. Great Britain and Italy were tough competitors. Then there was the feared German team, claiming they were the best in the world. When the boys got to the games it seemed the German team was the best. The United States won a spot in the finals, but they were still considered the underdogs. The climactic moment in the book is the race.

The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of An American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is a great read for middle school and high school boys. (A version of this same story is also available for adults: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Penguin Books, 2014.)

The book shows the power of forgiveness and trust. It shows that teamwork and dedication are key to winning. There are some themes in the book that talk about the Great Depression and the pre-World War II era which may be  need to be discussed with younger children who are not familiar with this period of history. There is a glossary of rowing terms in the back of the book that I found very helpful. Also I encourage people to remember that 2016 is the 80th anniversary of the Berlin Games.

From Nancy–There are a several youtubes of the race that your reader might want to check out. The following is a link to one of them.

Kristina O’Brien is the mother of three children, twin girls and a boy. She is an avid reader and a credentialed teacher. She has taught both middle school and high school history.