Sunday, November 5, 2017

Picture Book (FNG) Review: Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel. Illustrated by Micha Archer. unpgd. Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin Random House, February 6, 2018. 9781101996683. (Review from fng courtesy of publisher.)

Bobbi Gibb was a girl who loved to run. She lived during a time when girls had to wear skirts to school and were barred from participating in school sports. She ran anyway, every day. She especially loved running in the woods. One year, Bobbi went to watch the runners from the Boston Marathon pass by close to where she lived. She was smitten and challenged herself to become a marathoner. She trained in nurses shoes, presumably because there are no running shoes available for women. (In a later page, this is addressed.) In the Boston winters, she ran in boots. When she felt she was ready to compete in the marathon, she sent for an application but her request for an application is denied because, "Women are not physiologically able to run twenty-six miles..."

While this picture book biography is sure to serve as an inspiration as well as a reminder to young female athletes that women did not always have access to compete, I do have some questions.

The lovely textured oil and collage illustrations have a folk art feel and the smudgey details reinforce a bit of confusion as to the age Gibb was when ran the marathon. The story begins when she is a "girl." She loves to run. She is clearly young in the illustrations. But then the reader has no sense of the passage of time and the illustrations don't appreciably age her. No age is indicated on the page talking about how viewing her first marathon inspired her to train for one nor how old she was when she decided to run the marathon anyway. In the absence of this information in the text, I feel a timeline of her life, birth through what she is doing now as an athlete or a spokesperson, would've been helpful to clarify confusion.

The title adds to the confusion. Yes, women were referred to as girls back in the sixties and yes, folks were probably asking, "Is that a girl?" when realizing that a woman was, in fact, running the marathon. But being referred to as a girl was/ is demeaning and condescending. I thought she ran the marathon as a girl during my first read-through of the book! 

The afterword says that Gibb spent two years training and later said that she is listed in news reports by her married name, Bingay. She was the first woman to complete a marathon. Important stuff. Surely, an extra half-page of explanation about this aspect of women's sports history and as well as some women's history context, might have been helpful as well?

Also curious to me was the fact that Kathrine Switzer is not mentioned in the list of female marathoners that appears on the hill on the last spread. Gibb ran unofficially again in 1967 and in 1968 according to the afterword. But Switzer entered the Boston Marathon using just her first initial in 1967 and received a race number. There is a semi-famous video of the race organized furiously trying to grab her number off her jersey. Surely, she deserved her name on that hill?

Picture book biographies have been getting better and better lately. I don't think it's just because I am collecting them for a sixth grade research unit. It seems everywhere I turn this year, there's a well-written picture book biography featuring unusual people complete with copious source notes, context and backmatter. This is an interesting story that might have been better with a little extra in the way of context and backmatter.

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