We're not much for sports around our household. My husband's football gene was replaced by a comic book/sci-fi one, and I've never been a fan of athletics particularly. I'm not opposed to it, mind you, and I know that I'll probably be spending my share of Saturday afternoons cheering at soccer games or track meets. But overall sports just aren't our thing, and so when it comes to sports-themed books, I tend to pass right by them.
Except for this one. Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago caught my eye in a list of forthcoming titles a while back, and when I saw it again on the shelf at the library I was intrigued enough to check it out. Not sure just why, maybe it was the combination of boxing gloves, bare feet and glasses worn by the title character. In any event I thought it needed a second look, and I'm quite glad I gave it a chance, athletically-themed plot and all.
Buitrago is Colombian, and a flavor of his homeland comes through in this winsome title, both in the text and in the art by Colombian resident Rafael Yockteng. First I should say that the art is unlike anything else I've seen in a picture book - equal parts breathtaking and cartoonish -- and I mean that in the best possible sense. You almost can't stop looking at the pictures long enough to read the words. But you really should, of course, because the book is fantastic.
The story is set in a little town on the seaside, where Jimmy catches the eye of Don Apolinar, owner of the town's tiny gym. Don Apolinar sets Jimmy up to train as a boxer, giving him guidance and inspiration in the form of a box filled with books. In the box there are also clippings about Muhammad Ali - Jimmy has no idea who Ali is, but he likes his style, and soon begins to emulate Ali's confidence. Jimmy throws himself into training, finding that it takes his mind off his problems and the things he doesn't have in life. And eventually Jimmy is the most fearsome competitor anywhere around.
Time passes, which is the part of the story where we'd expect Jimmy to move away from his little town and make a name for himself, right? Not so, dear reader. Instead, Jimmy watches others move away to take up various opportunities, including his mentor Don Apolinar. But Jimmy stays. He takes over the gym and makes a library, turns his talents toward helping others. And maybe one day Jimmy will leave too, but for now, he's making a difference where he is, in this little town by the sea.
I love that this book defies all expectations. For one thing, Yockteng's illustrations soften the story, bringing unexpected whimsy into the mix. And, too, the message isn't that happiness is somewhere "out there". Instead, Buitrago is telling his audience there is no shame in being proud of your homeland, of choosing to stay in your own country and be "Jimmy the Greatest" where you are. Too many times, I think, we imply that there's shame in sticking to your roots, but Jimmy shows us the opposite. Jimmy's words at the end (see below) are truly moving and heartfelt - I love that he's found satisfaction, and the right fit, right where he is. Anyone can leave, Jimmy seems to say, but to stay takes real courage.
And that's a message everyone can believe in.
Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood Books (also available in Spanish)
Sample: "Listen to me. This is my town. There are donkeys, three sheep and the great huge sea. There are no elegant houses or fancy things. But we're really great. We dance and we box and we don't sit around waiting to go someplace else. / Goodbye, my story's over. Remember my name. Between the sky and the sea, there's me, Jimmy -- Jimmy the Greatest."