Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books PoC Reading Challenge 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Bright Path, the World’s Greatest Athlete

It’s been two weeks since we’ve participated in Nonfiction Monday, we’re happy to be able to join again with another Don Brown picture book biography: Bright Path: Young Jim Thorpe.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Inspired by Fats’ recent review of Don Brown’s Odd Boy Out, I searched our community libraries for books written by Brown, and I’m glad I was able to find this one that I’m glad to share for Nonfiction Monday, which is hosted this week by the handsome Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.

Alternative Pathways to Expertise: Bright Path’s Background. The man who is to be known as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” – Jim Thorpe – was named Wa-tho-huck, at birth (in 1888) – which means Bright Path. He was born in the Oklahoma plains and he belonged to the Sac and Fox Indians, his family’s tribe. Jim spent his childhood hunting raccoons – with the endless yellow and green grassland as his vast playground.

For the past two weeks, I have been immersed with a paper that I have been struggling to write and finish on alternative pathways to musical talent development. This picture book seems like the perfect literary echo of my academic fascination with expertise, and it’s always beautiful whenever I find these two distinct worlds (my academic and bookblogging life) merge together.

Bright Path, as I could deduce from this picture book, was also led to his area of expertise unwittingly. Yet, on hindsight, it makes perfect sense that he would have the makings of the ‘world’s greatest athlete’ given his childhood experience – the vast plains, the wonders of nature, the animals and the trees serving as his first ‘mentors.’

Summer or winter, Jim seemed to spend all his time in the open. He hunted, stalking raccoons, tracking deer, or snaring quail in traps made of cornstalks. He played wild games with his friends, too. His favorite was Follow-the-Leader where Jim and the other boys swam rivers, climbed trees, and dashed among the livestock.

But life wasn’t all games and hunting. His parents, Hiram and Charlotte, farmed and Jim and his four brothers and sisters helped tend crops, feed livestock, and tame horses.

If one examines his routine on a daily basis, this would form the beginnings of his “deliberate practice” not unlike the triathlons that most athletes engage in. What’s even lovelier is that it is part of what characterized his home life, his community – his reality. Literature on expertise and talent development consistently indicate that the early introduction to one’s area of talent is through play – Stage One in Benjamin Bloom’s levels of talent development.

Resilience: A Spirit that Struggles and the Body that Runs Runs away. Very similar to the narratives of most creative and eminent individuals, Jim Thorpe had a difficult childhood. It didn’t help that the sociopolitical zeitgeist of the time also did not recognize the inalienable rights of Bright Path and his family’s tribe:

… at age six, his parents enrolled him in a school just for Indian children where he’d be taught to act and dress like white people. At that time, many people believed that the Indians’ best future lay in pushing aside their culture.

Jim’s twin also died at a very young age and his mother fell ill and died when he was quite young, which caused Jim to give up school and help his father work the farm. However, Hiram, his father, was described to be quite the bully and would often physically punish Jim for the slightest wrongdoing – causing young Bright Path to run away when he was thirteen years of age.

Bright Path, running away.

Mentorship: Pop Warner, the Coach. Despite the fact that Jim would run away from difficult circumstances at home, somehow, he would still find his way home and gravitate towards his homeland. Jim even brought his father a team of horses when he returned.

Things had a huge turn-around when Bright Path was enrolled at Carlisle. While it was like his former schools which were depicted to be military strict, with the boys wearing army-style tunics and their long hair neatly cut and cropped, they also had track and field and football and baseball – sports activities which Jim naturally excelled in. This is also where Jim met his mentor, the famous Coach Pop Warner.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

I like how Don Brown depicted Bright Path’s seemingly-innocuous tryout during the track team practice:

… while watching the Carlisle’s track team practice one afternoon in 1907, Jim noticed that none of the high jumpers could clear the bar.

“I asked if I might try it,” he later said. “I had a pair of overalls on, a hickory shirt, and… looked like anything but a high jumper.”

While onlookers snickered, Jim approached the bar… and cleared it on the first try breaking the school high jump record!

And as they say, this is how history is made. Jim Thorpe went on to compete against athletes from twenty-eight nations in the 5th Olympic Games where he “won the decathlon with a score that would stand for twenty years” earning him the title “World’s Greatest Athlete.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

I love how Don Brown characterized Jim’s pathway to eventual eminence and expertise in this fashion:

As the onlooking crowd cheered themselves hoarse, perhaps Jim recalled the high jump he had made years earlier at Carlisle. There was something magical about that jump: On one side of the bar Jim had been an Indian boy unhappily struggling in an unfamiliar world, a boy with dim prospects. But on the other side, Jim Thorpe found the bright path to world fame.

Author’s Note and more resources. Teachers would fall in love with this beautifully-illustrated book with the equally beautiful narrative. More importantly, it contains a detailed Author’s Note at the back that traces each significant milestone in Bright Path’s life. It also made mention of the tragedy in the later years of Jim Thorpe’s life which I shall leave for you dear readers to discover. If you wish to know more about Bright Path, click here to be taken to his official website. Ron Kitson has likewise done an extensive write-up about Jim Thorpe’s outstanding sportsmanship and his contribution to the world of sports here.

There is also a video documentary done on the life of Jim Thorpe. Here is a nice trailer that you might like to watch. Enjoy!

PictureBook Challenge Update: 116 of 120

PoC Challenge Update: 47 (25)

Bright Path: Young Jim Thorpe by Don Brown. Roaring Brook Press, New Milford Connecticut, 2006. Book borrowed from the Community Library. Book photos taken by me.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

9 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: Bright Path, the World’s Greatest Athlete

  1. Don Brown surely knows how to adapt inspiring stories of truly gifted people. I like when people make fun of someone and that person proves them wrong. Jim Thorpe did exactly that, and also made them understand that greatness is not always found in beautiful wrappings filled with glitter and topped with bow. =)


    • Hi Fats, I agree. There was a similar powerful scene in the movie SHINE (based on the life of the famous and award winning pianist David Helfgott) while he was playing Flight of the Bumblebee (I think it was) – unfortunately I think a picture book adaptation is yet to be created.


  2. I clearly need to look out for other Don Brown books! I love how you related this story to the levels of talent development, Myra. Part of me doesn’t want to know the tragic end of Bright Path’s life; it would seem his beginnings were also pretty harsh. Love the relationship portrayed between boy and dog in that first illustration.


    • Hi Joanna, I felt sad I was reading through the Author’s Notes at the back – it was not made as part of the actual picture book, but Don Brown was sharp enough to include it in his annotations. Not an ideal ending, really.


  3. The books about Jim Thorpe are the kind of books I used to love as a little boy (6-8). I couldn’t get enough of them and to be honest, I’d probably love them now as well.


  4. Thanks for this recommendation, Myra. It does sound good.
    I love that you get most of your books from the library. I appreciate that you are such a strong supporter.
    Apples with Many Seeds


  5. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature and Round up for October |

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