The Boston Marathon is tomorrow, and on this Marathon Monday Eve, I want to share a fantastic new kids’ book about the first woman to run it.
“Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon,” by Annette Bay Pimentel and brought to life beautifully with Micha Archer’s richly textured collage illustrations, is not only inspiring for girls, or for runners, but for any kid — any one of us — who’s ever been told not to try, that we won’t succeed, not to bother with a dream.
First, some background.
“Girl Running” is the true story of Roberta Louise "Bobbi" Gibb, now 75, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966. She ran it unsanctioned because her application was denied.
Women were not allowed in the race, and furthermore, they were not physiologically or physically capable of racing more than 1.5 miles, so Gibb was told.
Gibb ran anyway.
Wearing a black bathing suit, her brother's Bermuda shorts and boys' running shoes, she finished in 3:21:40 — beating two-thirds of the men.
Women would not be allowed to run those 26.2 miles until 1972, but Bobbi ran again in ’67 and ’68 — although she wasn’t recognized as the women’s winner of those races until, shockingly, 1996.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer — who ran with a men’s bib and was just about yanked off the course — is often credited as the first woman to run. Gibb beat Switzer by about an hour that year.
Gibb has been interviewed for many sports documentaries, but her life story should be a movie.
From running with her dog in the woods near her house as a little girl, to running with her dog across the United States as a young woman, her story is epic.
She once ran to Mexico by accident during a 25-mile training run, jogging a California beach one way at low tide, and got detained at the border on her route back at high tide.
She’s earned colleges degrees by the fistful, including a law degree, and practiced law in Boston.
As of a few years ago, she was a neuroscience researcher at the University of California-San Diego.
She studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and now paints, and sculpts. She sculpted the bronze figurines of a girl running that were given as trophies at the US Olympic marathon trials in 1984…. I could go on.
For grown-ups, I strongly suggest her 2011 memoir, “Wind in the Fire.” She writes:
"Growing up, I had fumed over the injustices and unfairness of what I saw my future role would be as a women in our society. There were few, if any, opportunities for a woman unless she wanted to be a teacher, nurse or secretary… Husband and wife were joined through marriage as one, and the one was the husband. Women gave up their names… and far too often, their dreams."
In “Girl Running” — the title referring to shocked onlookers who saw a girl running! — Pimentel tells Gibb’s story beautifully for kids.
“Bobbi Gibb must wear a skirt to school because she is a girl. She is not allowed to run on the school’s track team. Because those are the rules — and rules are rules. But after school, Bobbi leaves the rules behind. She changes into pants and runs in the woods. Her feet crunch on the frozen ground. She loves to twist through the trees like a bounding deer. The wind rushes past her ears.”
When Bobbi sees the Boston Marathon runners, “Her legs twitch to join the race.”
I love that Pimentel uses the authentic language of the denial letter here, without dumbing it down for kids: “Women are not physiologically able to run twenty-six miles.”
“Bobbi crumples the letter and hurls it across the room. She races out the door.”
That’s a powerful scene, there.
I was so in love with the message of this book, that I had to interview both Pimentel and Archer.
Pimental, of Idaho, and Archer, of Amherst, will be in Boston this afternoon at 3 p.m. at Porter Square Books to discuss the book. And tomorrow, Pimentel’s husband runs the Boston Marathon.
Daley: So what sparked the idea for a kids book on Gibb?
Pimentel: My husband forwarded me a video of Kathrine Switzer … being literally pushed out of the race by the director of the marathon. “You should write about her!” he told me. I started researching and was surprised when [Switzer] mentioned being inspired by someone I’d never heard of: Bobbi Gibb.
Daley: What did you love about Gibb’s story?
Pimentel: I admire and respect women who set out to be activists, but Gibb’s path is a little different. She didn’t start running in order to make a statement … She just liked to run. But when officials told her that women can only run 1.5 miles, it became clear to her that she had a responsibility to change the national conversation.
Daley: What do you want girls to take away from the book? Readers in general?
Pimentel: Gibb’s story is about delighting in doing the things you love, and holding on to that passion when life throws up roadblocks, or when other people get in the way. I also love that one of Gibb’s primary motivations in running the Boston Marathon was to help make a space for other female runners…
I’ve loved sharing this story with schoolchildren. I’m especially pleased with how indignant the boys are over how Bobbi was treated…This isn’t just a girls’ or women’s story: it’s about people supporting each other in their dreams.
Daley: You also wrote a kids’ non-fiction book about the National Park Service — how do you pick topics for your books?
Pimentel: I love learning about people from the margins of history — ones who might have been forgotten or never recognized — who nudged the world in new directions. You don’t have to be famous or rich or powerful to make a difference…
Daley: Micha, what did you like about Gibb’s story?
Archer: Girls need to know whose shoulders they are standing on; who made it possible for them to do the things they now take for granted. [They need to know you can] question the rules — and the people who make them — if you think they might be sexist… or wrong.
Daley: What inspires you as an illustrator?
Archer: I enjoy the challenge of bringing stories alive. I hope to capture the attention of the wiggly reader, who, like me at that age, may not have been moved by text alone…
I spend hours and hours looking at art and photography books and sketching; hammering out the rhythm of the book and creating compositions that I hope will be readable from the back of the classroom.
Daley: What will spark an image?
Archer: When I saw the photographs of young Bobbi, I was struck by her beauty, with her long blonde hair that would flip when she ran. I loved the image of her running through the woods with her dog in all kinds of weather…
There were so many images I wished I could have added — like when she was told women are not allowed in the MIT library and she stood there and screamed until she was led out; her sleeping out under the stars ... [or] when she raced alongside horses to train. She is a fascinating, unique character.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and Spotlight music columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer She tweets @laurendaley1.