Age Range: 11 – 14 years
Grade Level: 5 and up
Most sports books for young readers put athletes on a pedestal. Given the unsavory off-field conduct of many of today’s players, however, that’s an increasingly problematic approach. A delightful new book on how science has improved athletic performance over the decades avoids that dilemma by shining the spotlight on the technology that fuels their exploits. Unlike most sports books, Faster Higher Smarter doesn’t want its readers to “Be Like Mike,” as in the famous Gatorade commercial about basketball legend Michael Jordan. Rather, it explains the science behind Jordan’s apparent ability to defy gravity when dunking the basketball. (Spoiler: Lifting his legs and waiting to shoot until he’s headed down creates the illusion of hovering.)
Colorful anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of both athletes and those behind the new technologies help author Simon Shapiro educate as well as entertain readers. And he doesn’t dumb things down. In describing the origins of hockey’s terrifying slap shot, so powerful that it forced vulnerable goalies to adopt a face mask in self-defense, Shapiro also explains how a player’s actions convert kinetic energy to elastic energy and then back to kinetic energy. Likewise, his tale of how the clap skate revolutionized speed skating includes a painless lesson in how levers work.
Shapiro also deserves credit for giving equal space to women. His chapter on the pioneering efforts of Marilyn Hamilton to make a lighter and more maneuverable wheelchair after a hang-gliding accident left her with paraplegia is a lesson both in materials science and in how to overcome adversity: Hamilton became a champion wheelchair tennis player and cofounded a company that makes “Quickie” wheelchairs. Unfortunately for baseball crazed readers, Shapiro’s chapter on baseball’s increasing use of obscure statistical metrics to assess performance is a tale already told better by many other writers. But that’s a minor flaw in anotherwise excellent book.