The Undefeated

Image of The Undefeated (Caldecott Medal Book)
Release Date: 
April 2, 2019
Reviewed by: 

When a person is born into a world where the odds are stacked against him/her—and still manages to retire undefeated in his/her prospective field—that person should not be forgotten or overlooked simply because he/she is African American. Yet it happens every day. That’s why poet and New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander’s latest picture book, The Undefeated, is such a breath of fresh air.

In lyrical, soul-searing prose, Alexander salutes the undefeated through images of dark runners, legs stretched forth as they “hurdle” history; muscled boxers staring defiantly at their opponents; cool, clean and spunky musicians smiling out at readers who are only just discovering their existence after they are long gone from this earth.

There are Civil War soldiers proudly clutching regiment colors, and nameless families who “survived America by any means necessary . . .” There is even a blank page, pure white, depicting those brave ancestors who stood against the odds and did not survive, but who still were undefeated in their lifetime. Their lives and legacies are what The Undefeated is all about.

This book is such a work of art. Artist Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are deep, dark and rich, fluid with movement, and bursting with pride, emotion and defiance at the odds that would dare try to hold anyone down.

There are familiar faces, including Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, and Zora Neal Hurston. And there are unfamiliar faces, like families from the “Great Migration,” and images of the wretched bottom of an overcrowded slave ship. There are composites of great athletes, fearless “Black Lives Matter” marches, and even a candle-lit, teddy-bear-and-flower-adorned memorial to young lives lost (Tamir Rice, Trayvonne Martin, Michael Brown, etc.). Familiar or not, The Undefeated does not identify any individuals by name; it simply salutes them as unforgettable; unflappable; undefeated.

This book is quiet and loud; humble and proud; mournful and full of joy—all at the same time! It is a tribute to those who were undefeated in life, and through this book, remain undefeated in death. It offers the author’s backstory on how the book came to be, and details the people in the illustrations for those readers who simply have to know more, more, MORE. Use this book as an inspiration in Social Studies, Citizenship, and American History classes. It can also be used in art classes or to jumpstart a conversation about something as broad as leaving a family or community legacy.