It’s hard to believe there was once a time when women and girls were discouraged from playing sports or getting involved in athletic pursuits. As you know from my list of picture books about women in history, there are some admirable women trailblazers in the world of sports.
In choosing these biographies, I really wanted to include an eclectic selection of athletic pursuits. It was fun reading about all the fearless female athletes making history in their sport, whether it was by breaking records, paving the way for future women, or accomplishing incredible feats of strength and endurance.
This list begins with an assortment of sports and ends with several books in a few popular categories: baseball, tennis and track and field.
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Children’s Books about Female Athletes of All Kinds
Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History
by Sue Stauffacher
Ask your children how they’d enjoy riding a bicycle while wearing long heavy skirts. Next ask how they’d feel if they weren’t allowed to speed down hills with the wind whipping through their hair. Then they will understand why Swedish immigrant, Tillie Anderson, sewed herself a scandalously tight -fitting outfit and started entering bicycle races where she no longer had to confine herself to riding graceful figure eights. A marvelous woman athlete worth knowing!
Roller Derby Rivals
by Sue Macy
This is just what a picture book biography of women athletes should be! Roller Derby Rivals is an exciting, suspenseful, informative text that expertly integrates story with facts, and illustrations which transport you to the arena! It’s 1948 and two rivals roller derby queens are facing off. Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn and Gerry Murray acted the part of rivals just like modern day wrestlers and everyone is breathlessly awaiting their next televised “battle!” Great fun about a subject not frequently covered in children’s books.
Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story Of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way To Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History!
by Shana Corey
Annette Kellerman had difficulty walking as a child so her father encouraged her to start swimming as a way to strengthen her legs. At a time when women were not permitted on the competitive swimming scene, Kellerman started developing a more artistic form of swimming that we now think of as water ballet. She performed her swimming, diving feats and aqua-acrobatics to adoring crowds and always pushed herself to do more and do better. This book about a little known heroine is great fun.
by Sue Macy
In 1896 Agnes Morley played in the first ever inter-collegiate women’s basketball game. It was Stanford vs. Berkeley, in case you were wondering. Expert sports biographer, Sue Macy, introduces readers to the birth of women’s basketball. Macy tells the story of Morley’s transition from ranch life to sports history.
Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating
by Rose Viña
Mabel Fairbanks was first African-American woman to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. She got her start at a time when only whites were permitted at public skating rinks but Fairbanks persevered and entertainment manager, Wally Hunter, built her a rink in his home so Fairbanks could skate anytime. Although Fairbanks career was not all she wanted and she was never allowed to compete in a major event, she was instrumental in paving the way for future African-American skaters.
Nadia The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Still
by Karlin Gray
Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, made history at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and she got there because her mother helped her focus all her excess energy into a specific sport! Gray’s biography tells the story of Nadia’s rise to gymnastic stardom and Christine Davenier’s illustrations wonderfully capture the fluid movement of Comaneci’s athletic talent.
A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player
by Michelle Lord
In Pakistan, Maria is bored with traditional female pursuits like baking and housekeeping. She longs to get outside and play sports like her brother. When a man slaps her face for spiking a volleyball in public, she begins dressing as a boy and joins a squash club. As the only woman out of 400 men, she endured bullying because of her gender but did not give up. Maria’s story of female empowerment and perseverance is a crucial one.
The following picture book biographies of women athletes tell the story of great tennis legends!
Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson
by Sue Stauffacher
Before Venus and Serena there was Althea. Althea grew up in Harlem as a rowdy tomboy and went on to become the first African-American to win the Wimbledon Cup. My favorite part of the book is the way Greg Couch illustrated Althea, with a sort of constant rainbow vibration. This is a fun read aloud, especially for sports fans, who will enjoy mimicking the voice of an announcer.
Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams
by Howard Bryant
Who doesn’t love the inspiring athleticism of the Williams sisters? Here’s a worthy biography of two stellar women and their rise to greatness! Bryant, a sports journalist, focuses on the relationship between Venus and Serena as well as the crucial roll their father played in encouraging them to play tennis.
Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports
by Phil Bildner
Whether or not you think Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had the greatest rivalry in the entire history of sports, Bildner’s aggressive attempt to persuade readers will draw children into the ups and downs of the lives of these two tennis greats who may have been rivals, but also became friends.
These biographies feature women athletes who were stars in the world of baseball. For more baseball-themed picture and history books check out this list of children’s books about baseball.
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story
by Audrey Vernick
Effa Manley is the only woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was the business manager of the Newark Eagles, a Negro League Baseball team, which she and her husband founded. She fiercely campaigned for the rights and due recognition for African-American ball players.
The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton
by Audrey Vernick
In 1922, 10 year old Edith Houghton tried out for—and made the cut with— the Philadelphia Bobbies. This biography not only tells the highlights of Houghton’s interesting career (she later became a recruiter) but also includes interesting details that make the story come alive.
Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl’s Baseball Dream
by Crystal Hubbard
Marcenia Lyle is dissatisfied with the career options available to girls. When a recruiter tells her that she can’t play ball at summer camp because she’s a girl, Marcenia (later “Toni Stone”) refuses to take no for an answer.
Queen of the Diamond: The Lizzie Murphy Story
by Emily Arnold McCully
Lizzie Murphy was the first woman to play in a major-league exhibition game as well as all-star games. Lizzie’s father encouraged her to play ball, and her fellow players stood up for her when the manager tried to get out of paying Lizzie a fair salary.
Women in Track and Field
Long-Armed Ludy and the First Women’s Olympics
by Jean L. S. Patrick
Tall and skinny Lucille “Ludy” Godbold discovered at Winthrop College that her long arms gave her a great advantage in the shot put event. She then qualified for the first Women’s Olympics in 1922. Fearing she wouldn’t have the funds to travel to France for the event, the president of her college, her peers and teachers raised the money to send her.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman
by Kathleen Krull
Wilma grew from a 4 pound baby to be one of the fastest women in the world and competing at the Olympics. This is amazing considering that after a childhood bout of polio, it was thought that her leg was permanently damaged. Wilma worked through her injury as a young girl, earned an athletic scholarship and won three Olympic gold medals. My kids were fascinated with the idea that she won her medals even though she had a twisted ankle!
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon
by Kim Chaffee
In 1967, despite opposition by the establishment, Kathrine Switzer became the first women to officially complete the Boston Marathon. Her perseverance in the face of disapproval will inspire many young athletes, girls and boys!
More biographies of famous women: