Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance by Simone Biles, with Michelle Burford.
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016.
Young adult biography/autobiography, 250 pages.
Not yet leveled.
This is the story of Simone Biles, a gymnast who came to national and international attention as the first female gymnast ever to win three consecutive all-around titles, and then again as she took the Olympics by storm in Rio this year.
This book is co-authored by Michelle Burford, a founding editor of O magazine who has assisted several public figures with their biographies, including Gabby Douglas.
I got the sense that this book was probably already mostly written and just waiting for the Olympics to add on the end. Of course, Simone Biles did even better than expected, and I got the last first edition from my local Target.
The hardcover is one of those new ones where the dust jacket turns into a poster, although it is not as successful as the other one we own (Husband has As You Wish by Cary Elwes) because the cover is embossed in the front. Even though it is very light embossing, it does show through when the cover is reversed.
Simone Biles is only 19, so it’s understandable that this book is pretty light. She has been through some pretty tough stuff, being in foster care, moving to live with her maternal grandfather and his wife, returning to foster care as her mom made progress, and finally being separated from two of her biological siblings and being adopted (together with her younger sister) by her grandparents.
This is covered in chapters two and three (chapter one is about an important meet she didn’t do well in). Younger readers might be confused that Simone talked about her grandmother and grandfather, and now is calling them mom and dad and refers to her mother by her first name. However, the first time she calls them mom and dad is an important scene in the book, so I felt no confusion.
Simone’s faith is also an important part of the book. She was touted quite a bit during the Olympics as being a Catholic (as was Katie Ledecky), which led to some confusion as many people aren’t aware of the large African-American Catholic population. Since the book was published by Zondervan, I expected her faith would be present, but I was pleasantly surprised that her pivotal religious influences were left intact, with Chapter 6 even entitled “A Novena”.
Of course, gymnastics is the central focus of the book. For the first half, chapters somewhat alternate between being gymnastics-centered and being about her life outside of the gym. The second half of the book is more and more focused on gymnastics as she chooses to follow a professional career.
I really enjoyed that Simone was open about her failings and poor choices but held her ground about good choices, such as choosing not to perform a difficult move she wasn’t ready to do safely in competition. She talks very honestly about her difficulty in making some of the major choices in her career. The book doesn’t delve very deeply into her feelings about her biological mother, and I think that’s okay – those wounds take time to heal!
I’ve only read a few gymnastics memoirs, but this is the first one that was mostly positive. I think this is attributed to her family and her coach Aimee. Her family supported her but kept it very real, and honestly just parented her so well. Her coach also kept things positive and was training her with the end goal in mind, which meant keeping it fun as well as work. Self-discipline, good manners, and a positive attitude took precedence over everything, even gymnastics. Health and safety were the most important things, and her coach never made her do weigh-ins or forced her to diet.
For these reasons, when she had run-ins with racism or another coach calling her fat, she was able to take it in stride, because she had an extremely supportive home base and was raised to be confident and optimistic. Even when another competitor made a racist remark, her mother counseled her to stay out of the fray and reminded her that the girl was likely just jealous.
In many ways Courage to Soar reminded me of Misty Copeland’s book Life in Motion, because there were so many similarities between their life stories. Both came late to the sport after a coach’s notice led to lessons, had a difficult early home life, bonded strongly with an early coach, succeeded beyond their, or anyone’s, initial expectations. Of course, there are many differences, but the overarching narrative is the same.
I did wish was that the book included more pictures, as there were several important people I had trouble imagining from the description.
This book is aimed at YA audiences but will appeal to adults or middle school students as well. I wouldn’t generally recommend it for younger students, but individual children may be up to the challenge.