Undeniably a Powerful Read: An Unstoppable, Underrepresented Hero in Sports History by Shelli Thelen

Incredible. Incredible. Incredible. Moving through the pages of Steve Sheinkin’s new book Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, I found myself talking to anyone who would listen about this incredible diverse athlete. While I am not a sports fan, I am a fan of stories that reveal the lives of those that emerge as champions of their own destiny.

The biography alternates between Jim Thorpe’s story and the coach who changed his life, Pop Warner.  Jim Thorpe was born in 1887 in Oklahoma at a time that the United States government was relocating Native Americans from their native lands to individual allotments. Jim’s parents settled on an allotment only to see that within the next three years, settlers were living on their native land. Through Jim Thorpe’s life, Sheinkin provides the reader a front-row seat as to what life was like for a Native American in the United States at the turn of our 19th century. The view is not pretty. Segregation, stereotypes, and harsh treatment are unveiled throughout the story.

Jim Thorpe detested school. He hated school so much that once he ran twenty-three miles from the boarding school to return home. After a few failed enrollments in other boarding schools, Thorpe enrolled at the Carlisle Indian School in 1904. This move changed his future.

It is upon Jim’s tenure at the Carlisle Indian School that his athleticism is recognized and Thorpe joins the football team.

Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle team changed the game of football. While the team had the most grueling schedule on record at the time, they emerged as one of the most winningest teams in football.  And if that were the end of the story, that would be enough. But it is not even close to the end! Thorpe’s athletic legacy expands as he becomes an Olympic medalist, a professional baseball player, and an actor in movies. Incredible!  

Once I finished the book, I reached out to many of the avid sports fans in my life and went on and on about the book. Many of them knew Thorpe’s impressive storyline.  Turns out, Jim Thorpe is often considered one of the greatest American athletes of all time. Upon completing the book, I kept going to my computer and looking up new things on this incredible human being. Thorpe’s athleticism is the currency that propels him into the professional world of sports.

Steve Sheinkin is a former textbook writer who has successfully written nonfiction titles on a variety of topics for children. If you have not read one of his books, be sure to add him to your reading list and classroom libraries. While Sheinkin’s titles are often geared towards middle school and high school readers, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team is recommended for ages 10-16. If you have strong middle grade readers who are prolific sports fans, this is a book to put into their hands. If you are a primary teacher, don’t fret! There are quite a few picture books that are worthy of consideration as well!  Look for these titles to share Jim Thorpe’s impressive story.


Shelli Thelen is a fifth-grade teacher for the Columbia Public School District in Missouri. After teaching 13 years in Kindergarten, Shelli made the jump up to fifth-grade and has loved reading with her students for the past two years. Shelli Thelen is an adjunct professor at Westminster University in Fulton, Missouri. You can follow Shelli’s classroom on Twitter @thelensthinkers or take a peek at her classroom blog at http://www.thelensthinkers.blogspot.com.