Becoming Muhammad Ali: a novel by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile
Patterson, James and Kwame Alexander, and Dawud Anyabwile, illustr. Becoming Muhammad Ali. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.
Alternating in verse (narrated by a young Cassius Clay) and prose (narrated by his friend, Lucky), this novel for young readers tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s youth and journey to and through the boxing ring. Althought ethe alternations in persepctive and writing style are jarring at first, a slight knock to the jaw, it quickly becomes habit, and is fun to read! Like any coming of age story there are crushes, bullies, and struggles with grades. Yet Cassius, known as Gee-Gee to friends and family, is growing up in 1950s Louisville, Kentucky, amidst segregation. Cassius is seeking to reconcile this with his big dreams – to be the greatest, to buy his mother a big house – in a world where “there’s two Lousivilles,” where he asks his father of his church painting, “where were all the black angels when they took the picture?” With engaging and rhythmic verse, readers follow as Cassius Clay trains, ” The name’s Cassius Clay / and I’m gearing to fight / my next foe may bark / but I’m sure gon’ bite!” According to Lucky, “Cassius wasn’t satisfied” with anything simple, but “had to “add a little drama. A little color. A little poetry.” Lucky writes that he “always had songs his head,” and always had “rhymes,” rendering the form of this book even more apt and the voice more authentic.
According to the acknowledgements, much of the book is based on never before heard oral histories, thanks to Muhammad Ali’s family, perhaps giving readers an unprecedented look at the youth of this great figure. Since it is a fictionalized biography, we see elements of truth and the history of the times rendered in a way that draws in readers and presents history in a way that is “relevant and meaningful to their lives today.” (Vardell, 214). Illustrations interspersed throughout the pages add to the deep character studies and further hook readers.
This book could be used as a basis in a unit on biographies and historical profiles, as well in conjuction with studies of the civil rights movement and segregation. Since Cassius is always talking about his hopes for the future, despite systemic racism and inequalities he faces, it could also be used in a discussion of dreams for the future, and a recipe for overcoming and shining the spotlight on societal injustices. The author’s website features this reading guide. Students can also check out the Muhammad Ali Center’s Digital Museum here.
Check out a converstation with Kwame Alexander, talking about the book, here from The Brown Bookshelf.