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Posted: Saturday, October 6, 2012 12:00 pm

The best books you’ll ever read are the ones that do more than just entertain. They educate too.

“Touch the Sky,” the story of Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, is one of those.

You may not know who Coachman is, and not many people would be surprised by that.

Children’s author Ann Malaspina didn’t know either until she saw Coachman honored at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Ga., as one of the 100 best athletes in Olympic history.

It was at the 1948 Summer Games in London when Coachman set an Olympic record in the high jump — 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches — and landed herself in history books.

Watching the ceremony at the ’96 games, Malaspina, a former newspaper reporter, recognized Coachman’s gold medal story as literary gold — a young girl growing up in the 1930s segregated South who had both a passion and natural talent for running and jumping and a determination that led her all the way to the Olympics.

When Coachman was young, her parents weren’t happy to see her running and jumping. They wanted her to sit still like a lady. But she couldn’t stop herself.

A teacher recognized Coachman’s potential and took her to a track meet. Watching boys at the high jump made Coachman’s feet tingle. But in 1930s Georgia, fields, tracks and doors were “shut to girls like Alice.”

She didn’t let that stop her. She and friends knotted rags, tied them to sticks and planted them in the ground to create a high bar for her to practice.

Then one day a high school coach needed a jumper and he took Coachman along to a relay in Tuskegee, Ala., with her teachers providing the shoes, shorts and socks she needed to compete.

Coachman won her first medal that day and with it an invitation to enroll at the Tuskegee Institute High School where she would be a member of the Golden Tigerettes.

Finally, Coachman could run and jump to her heart’s delight, but traveling with the team wasn’t easy.

“Whites-only restaurants shut. Restrooms shut to girls like them.”

Coachman dreamed of being able to compete for an Olympic medal, but that seemed impossible, especially once the Games were canceled during World War II.

Then peace came and with it, Coachman’s time to “Touch the Sky.”

Running a Race Is

Like Writing a Book

Malaspina, who will be the guest author at this year’s Run to Read event next Saturday, Oct. 13, spent two to three years researching Coachman’s story before she even began writing a book on her. A research grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators gave her the encouragement needed to keep going.

The process of getting the book published was just as challenging.

“Even though (Coachman) was the first black woman to win a gold medal, she didn’t have the same kind of name recognition as other Olympic athletes,” Malaspina explained.

Then once the manuscript was complete and a publisher had signed on, Malaspina’s editor raised the bar by suggesting she rewrite the story in free verse.

“She thought it would get more emotion,” Malaspina said.

And she was right.

“I definitely like it better,” Malaspina admits. “It gives the story more energy, and because it’s about an athlete, it works.”

Finally, the illustrations drawn by Eric Velasquez really brought the story to life, said Malaspina.

“He found photos of (Coachman) and really looked at all of the details — how she wore her hair as a child, her uniform in the Olympics . . . ”

In the end, “Touch the Sky” was a team effort, and that’s true of all books, said Malaspina, who compared writing a book to running a race.

You don’t reach the finish line alone in either one, she said. There are many people along the way who help you accomplish your goal.

Runners have coaches and trainers, fans cheering them on along the route, and others encouraging them to keep up their endurance.

Writers have editors and illustrators, fans eager to read their stories, and others encouraging them to keep going.

Inspirational Messages

There’s more than one message Malaspina hopes children (and adults) who read “Touch the Sky” take away when they close the cover.

First is setting a goal and not letting obstacles get in your way.

“(Coachman) competed for 10 years before she was able to compete in the Olympics,” said Malaspina. “That was 10 years of working to stay at the top of her sport.”

That was even harder as a girl growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era, when African-Americans were given less freedoms than whites. Yet, Coachman, who is still alive and in her late 80s, has no bitterness about the hardships she had to face and overcome, Malaspina noted.

Along with breaking race barriers, Coachman also contributed to breaking gender barriers. Her parents didn’t think girls should run and jump, but she didn’t let that stop her.

Malaspina plans to talk about all of these things and more in her presentation at this year’s Run to Read.

Drawn to History,

Civil Rights Stories

Malaspina began her career working at newspapers in Lowell and Boston, Mass., after earning a master’s in journalism from Boston University.

Once she married and had children, she stayed at home and found work writing nonfiction for education publishers.

About five years ago, Malaspina began writing children’s picture books  about historical characters.

Her newest book which came out this summer, “Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President,” tells the story of how Anthony and a group of other women voted in the presidential election in 1872 — nearly 50 years before women were given the right to vote!

“It was against the law, but she did go vote,” said Malaspina.

As a result, she was arrested and put on trial.

That there was once a time when women were not allowed to vote is something many children may not realize, said Malaspina, but it’s an important lesson for everyone to learn.

“Even with sports, girls and boys have the same opportunities now, but there was a time when they didn’t,” she said. “We need to be aware of these things today and look out for each other.”

Malaspina currently is writing a children’s book about the Boston Tea Party.

Run, Walk and Read

There’s a new starting location, new route and new activities for the 2012 Run to Read. But one thing remains the same: Everyone who participates will take home a new hardback book of their choosing.

The event will begin at 8 a.m. at  Washington Public Library.

The 5K (3.1-mile) run will wind through the downtown section. As always, there will be age divisions for children (6 to 19) and adults.

Overall awards will be presented to male and female youth and adults, along with first- through third-place medals in each adult age division and medals for all youth runners.

Once runners take off, a one-mile walk for all ages will begin. Along the walk route several key pages from “Touch the Sky” will be enlarged and set up block by block for walkers to stop and read if they choose.

There also will be small objects that walkers can collect along the way to help illustrate the story.

And for the littlest runners and walkers, a Baby Buzz Dash will begin at 8:45 a.m. for children ages 5 and younger. All dashers will receive medals at the finish.

Following all of these events, around 9 a.m., Malaspina will give a presentation on “Touch the Sky” inside the library. The general public is invited to come hear the author speak at the library. A medal ceremony for runners will follow at 9:30 a.m.

Coachman Inspires Local Students

Students at St. Vincent de Paul in Dutzow will have a jump on hearing from Malaspina when she visits St. Vincent’s next Friday, Oct. 12.

The school won a visit from Malaspina through a writing contest sponsored by the Missourian In Education program. Students in kindergarten through high school were invited to submit letters to Coachman using the line from Malaspina’s book, “But a dream is a beginning and as Alice grew older, her dream was to soar,” to tell Coachman why her story is inspiring and share their own dreams and aspirations.

A random drawing of all the entries was held to select the winner. Liam, a second-grader at St. Vincent’s, wrote the winning entry:

“Dear Alice Coachman,

“I think you are awesome. My dream is to be on the Mizzou football team and be famous.”

Isabelle, a second-grader, from Beaufort Elementary School told Coachman of her dream:

“You dreamed big and won the gold medal. I dream big too! Someday I dream to be a teacher.”

Kurt, a student at St. Francis Borgia Grade School, wrote that reading Malaspina’s book on Coachman inspired him to just be himself:

“That book really inspired me to be myself and go where myself takes me.”

Wyatt, another student from St. Vincent de Paul School in Dutzow, wrote to Coachman that reading about her determination inspires him to be a more dedicated athlete as well.

“I have always wanted to be in the NBA. This is my dream, and your story was a wake-up-call,” he wrote. “To me, the way you stood up to injustices (meaning racism) was just extra motivation for me.”

Register for Run/Walk

Registration for the Run to Read will remain open until the day of the event. The fee is $10.

A registration form may be picked up at the YMCA or downloaded at emissourian.com/run2read.

Registered participants may pick up their race packets at the YMCA the day before the race, Friday, Oct. 12, between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

For more information, contact Dawn Kitchell at kitchelld@emissourian.com or 636-932-4301 or Becky Cox at the YMCA at BCox@ymcastl.org or 636-239-5704.

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